Year of Release: 2013 Directed by Henry Alex Rubin. Starring Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Andrea Riseborough, Frank Grillo, Colin Ford, Jonah Bobo, Max Thieroit, Alexander Skarsgård, and Paula Patton.
2013 has so far stood out to me as a year of cinematic good intentions. While none of those cinematic good intentions has gone to the place where the road paved with good intentions goes, unfortunately most of those good intentions have been far from satisfying or rewarding. Mama attempted to be a fresh horror film that relied on an atmosphere of suspense and tension to frighten the audience, but undermined itself by its revealing opening and predictable proceedings. Side Effects wanted to be a clever murder mystery, but became too complicated for any satisfactory explanation. Iron Man 3 tried to be a lighthearted and fun action flick with a twist on the villain’s identity, but became bogged down by copious plot holes and overall absurdity. Disconnect is the latest cinematic disappointment with noble intentions.
The movie meant to showcase the horror and tragedy of isolation in our increasingly digitalized age, sexual exploitation of children, teen cyber bullying and suicide, and identity theft. All of those concerns are a lot for one movie, and the script by Andrew Stern cleverly weaves the different storylines together for the most part.
There are three storylines, all focusing on characters suffering from isolation and a feeling of hopelessness and rejection. Consequently they turn to online social media for connections instead of trying to build tangible relationships. A teen Kyle (Max Thieroit) ends up as an internet sex worker, and news reporter Nina (Andrea Riseborough) has been employing him (as a sex worker) for a news story on sexual exploitation of children. Socially awkward teen Ben (Jonah Bobo) is cyber bullied, tricked into sexting and then attempts suicide once his entire high school sees his nude picture. Finally, couple Derek and Cindy (Alexander Skarsgård and Paula Patton) has their identity stolen and bank account emptied after Cindy visited support chat rooms to help her deal with grief. Admittedly, identity theft is not nearly as tragic as the other two, and that does not help the movie’s attempt to connect the various stories.
(If that was depressing to read, it was also depressing to type.)
The links that are present among the three stories are tenuous and completely unknown to any of the characters, which underscores the isolated nature of their lives. The father (Frank Grillo) of one of the cyber bullies is the detective who investigates the identity theft of the couple. The father (Jason Bateman) of the bullied child is the lawyer who works for the news agency that is running the story on the child prostitution industry. Both fathers are naturally completely clueless towards their sons’ troubles.
Towards the end of the film, as each conflict reaches its crisis, the storylines violently collide with very frequent cuts to each one of the characters as the explosions play out in slow motion so no one can miss the obvious message: isolation is bad and leads to destructive dehumanizing behavior from otherwise good people.
Which brings up another flaw of the film. The film constantly shifts from the news reporter to the child internet prostitute to the cyber bullies to their victim to the lawyer and to the detective. There are so many characters that the viewer does not have enough time to empathize with any of them. The majority of time spent with each character is spent focusing on their flaws and destructive choices.
Whether or not one finds the characters’ responses to their tragedies believable is a good litmus test for how cynical one is. The extreme measures, such as threatening to kill a child, exploiting someone to show the evil of exploitation, and breaking and entering only create more distance between the viewer and the characters. Since there is practically no example of a decent decision from these characters, their portrayal comes off closer to Norman Bates or Alex DeLarge instead of Captain Willard or Travis Bickle. The only character that garners a remote amount of sympathy is the older sister (Haley Ramm) of the bullied boy, who is deeply concerned about her brother and disgusted with her parents’ cluelessness, but she is hardly the focus of the film.
The gratuitous use of close-ups removes a distancing objectivity to the depravity and tragedy. While the close-ups do emphasize the isolation of the characters, director Henry Alex Rubin is quite literally rubbing the viewer’s face in the immorality on display. The camera presentation and viewer distance is no different for acts of teenage prostitution or a sister reaching out to comfort her brother.
Disconnect does not condemn social media, but rather the way that people choose to use or abuse it. At one point one character tells another, “They can’t get anything unless you give them permission.” The dark nature of the film certainly will make any viewer think twice about what he puts online. It also suggests disconnecting from media and reconnecting with people. Unfortunately, these ideas are mostly lost amid the converging stories.
The film does end with a few touching gestures that suggest there is some hope for this isolated, internet addicted, sex and money obsessed world. However, the final actions of the characters seem tacked on and artificial considering their prior actions. Disconnect had many good ideas. The dangers of abusing social media, child sexual exploitation, and cyber bullying could have made a harrowing and poignant film, but the intimacy with the tragedy and the lack of empathy for the characters only serves to disconnect the viewer from the film.
Content Advisory: Fleeting but graphic picture of full frontal nudity, themes of child sexual exploitation, an attempted suicide, several images of nudity, brief but explicit sexual content, teen drug use, several profanities and obscenities, and some intense violence. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with extreme discernment.
Personal Recommendation: C-
 Main characters from Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, and Taxi Driver, respectively.