The film Detachmentpresents a bleak picture of an inner-city high school.
The protagonist is Mr. Barthes, a substitute teacher; better stated, he is a teacher who chooses to work as a substitute teacher. As presented in the film, he is a fully qualified English teacher, who takes long-term substitute assignments in inner-city high schools. His qualifications are apparent when he finally gets his students to listen and gets them engaged in discussions. Discussions include the importance of reading, a work by Edgar Allan Poe, and double-speak from Orwell's 1984.
Mr. Barthes is not lost, as it has been written, nor is he confused or helpless. He knows exactly what he is doing. To consider him emotionally detached would be a misinterpretation of this character. He is not detached from what's going on inside and outside of a school. He is practicing detached involvement. He is confronted with disrespect, uninterested students with a variety of problems,, and the usual challenges faced by any substitute teacher. He takes nothing personal; he is non-judgmental, and he makes no assumptions. This is his way to get through to his students, and he is successful; the students listen to him, and have discussions with him.
The protagonist actually makes a living working as a long-term substitute teacher. His current assignment is to replace a burned-out teacher who quit in the middle of the semester. One can surmise than this is not an isolated incident, considering Mr. Barthes is in no lack of assignments.
For him everything is temporary. It is a way for this gifted teacher to avoid his total downfall. He cares about disadvantaged students, but he is avoiding burn-out. Outside school, he helps a non-student in her early teens, a young prostitute. He gets her off the streets, and lets her stay in his apartment, making it very clear that this situation is also temporary.
One criticism of the film is that it offers no solutions. It is not the responsibility of the filmmaker to offer solutions, only to present a situation or problem. But Mr. Barthes is offering his personal solutions, albeit temporary ones. Solutions would be hard to come by. Just by watching the film, it is easy to notice the total absence of school counselors, and school social workers. That would be one of the first steps. But this is a school serving a low-income population. There wouldn't be sufficient tax money or other financial help to help the school, its students and its teachers.
This excellent film is not a drama. It is a tragedy, a continuing situation with no complete solution, and it concerns the downfall of many full-time teachers. While Mr. Barthes will survive, both his students and the young prostitute will suffer from the separation from a teacher who talked and listened to them. Definitely, this is an American tragedy, in fiction and in reality.