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Review: ‘Disconnect’ is a Harrowing and Sometimes Too On-the-Nose Drama By Way of ‘Crash 2.0’

By  · Published on April 11th, 2013

Discourse on the growing disconnect between us due to the overwhelming presence of technology in our daily lives is nothing new. How many friends we have on Facebook becomes more important than how our real friends are doing. We fall in love with online confidants whom we’ve never even met in real life. Cell phones are omnipresent at dinner tables and movie theaters or even behind the wheel of a moving car. It seems the more connected we are with our online, virtual or electronic personas the less necessary our real ones become.

Disconnect takes an intimate, sad and occasionally heartbreaking look at the phenomenon through multiple stories woven together into a whole. The immediate comparison most people will make is to Crash (much like I did in this review’s title), but that’s only because that film is the most high profile and recent example of this kind of shifting narrative. I include that disclaimer because most folks hate the ever loving hell out of Crash, and it would be a shame to imply the level of quality and sincerity on display between them is comparable.

The three main stories spill into each other and outward to form additional smaller stories, but they almost all work to make their point with an honesty humanity towards their characters. It’s sometimes too honest in fact as the film can occasionally feel overly bleak and uncompromising even at its most hopeful. It’s almost enough to make a person want to go off the grid… at least until we remember how lonely Ted Kaczynski was too.

Rich Boyd (Jason Bateman) is a lawyer whose job remains his focus even at home to the point where his two kids have become as emotionally removed from each other as he is from them. His son, Ben (Jonah Bobo), is a quiet loner whose interests lean towards the solitary complete with world-muting headphones and a shyness about his musical talent. When two classmates prank him by pretending to be a female admirer on Facebook their childish cruelty leads to real world tragedy.

Derek and Cindy Hull (Alexander Skarsgård and Paula Patton) are a married couple in free-fall after the death of their infant child two years prior. His online gambling addiction and menial job have left them on a financial precipice, but they’re pushed over the edge when they find themselves victims of identity theft. Already feeling distant and emasculated, Derek heads toward the cliff himself as the pressures mount.

Nina Dunham (Andrea Riseborough) is a local news reporter desperate to rise above the fluff pieces she’s used to who latches onto a story about the webcam sex industry. She meets and befriends Kyle (Max Thieriot), an eighteen year old cam boy, and convinces him to take part in an interview. What looks like happy endings all around soon crashes and burns when the FBI and Nina’s heart come to blows over where to take the story from there.

Director Henry Alex Rubin and writer Andrew Stern show a deft hand at moving back and forth between characters without losing sight of their individuality or the overall theme.The time and effort invested in our online lives by its very nature detracts from our real ones, and the film drives the point home through emotional truths and a few heavy-handed “look at this!” moments too.

Some elements work better than others both in their execution and effect. The Boyd and Hull families and their respective sorrows and struggles are powerful and harrowing in their distress. The effect is amplified through strong acting from all involved including Frank Grillo as the retired detective helping the Hulls with their financial issues who also happens to be the father of one of the two online bullies harassing Ben. His son is fleshed out too allowing him to be more than a one-dimensional caricature, and young Colin Ford does a fine job making him human.

These threads show the dangers of an online existence taking the place of a real one, but the reporter’s tale achieves that thematic view only in the most simplistic form. Computers and the online world are simply tools to bring the reporter and cam boy together as opposed to being an integral part of the issue as presented elsewhere in the film. Because of that, and because of where this particular storyline goes, the stakes feel less weighty than the others. That said the acting between Riseborough and Thieriot keeps our attention riveted regardless.

Disconnect covers a lot of issues including insecurity, loneliness, guilt and grief and shows how they’re all amplified by our willingness to choose monitor screens over the three dimensions of life. Granted, taking in the film’s message means watching while multiple characters spend lots of time typing away at keyboards and reading monitor screens… but if it gets you to turn off the cell phone the next time you’re hanging out with loved ones than it’s time well spent.

The Upside: Strong acting; affecting drama; an especially fantastic “contact” shot in third act; bravely honest ending; phenomenal spit scene

The Downside: Occasionally heavy handed and obvious; Skarsgård doesn’t quite sell his character; potentially low re-watch value; multiple scenes of people typing

On the Side: This is Henry Alex Rubin’s first narrative film after the success of his documentary, Murderball.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.