Movie Review: Disconnect

The 2005 documentary Murderball, about the US men's basketball team in the Paralympic Games, is one of my favorite documentaries, if not films. Therefore I was eager to go to a screening of director Henry Alex Rubin's first "fiction" film, Disconnect, opening in theaters this Friday, April 12.

Disconnect is an ensemble film focusing on several characters in different stories whose lives intersect, albeit briefly. Sound like a certain Oscar-winning film? The comparisons to 2005's Crash are warranted. It follows almost the same buildup, but instead of race, the focus is the internet and technology.

Two boys harass the school's loser by creating a fake Facebook profile and posing as a potential online bully; a grieving couple are coping with the loss of their infant son while trying to find justice on the man who stole from them using identity theft; an opportunistic journalist exploits her relationship with a teen sex worker to get a story on a teen runaway prostitution ring who perform "personal webcam" services. (The pimp and ringleader, is oddly played by fashion designer Marc Jacobs because... why not?)

Here's the thing about ensemble/anthology films: we spend less time with each character overall, so the writer has the challenge of making us care about each set of characters with less time. Therefore, each story escalates rather quickly, and in a predictable way. (I'll bet you can guess what happens to the kid that was bullied.) They all must lead up to some sort of climactic ending that will bring the stories to a closure, and teach the viewers the lesson learned. But therein lies the contradiction: I believe this film's intention is to warn us that the dangers of technology/social media can end in severed relationships. However, in the film, the aspects of technology only are connected by being present in the narrative, but don't actual cause the characters to act the way they act. This is one of my biggest pet peeves about criticism of social media: it doesn't directly cause the breakdown of communication, it's the way people choose to use it. It's not automatically bad.

Even more confusing is the way in which the film is marketed. I received the following postcard during the screening:

The idea is to call attention to people who are taking their real world connections for granted, but asking people to do so to create viral marketing. It's pretty wishy-washy: technology is bad, but please use it to help market our film.

Rubin certainly carried over his directing skills for this film: the camerawork and scene setups seemed to be filmed as if one was documenting the film in a less-polished, documentary-esque way, which really captured some of the emotional tension of the scenes and brought it out from the actors. Jason Bateman, in a dramatic role for a change, is the standout as the father of the bully victim trying to seek answers, and True Blood sex bomb Alexander Skarsgard plays an unfulfilled man bent on getting justice (although, to be honest, it's hard to imagine just an everyday guy looking like Skarsgard). Max Thieriot, playing one of the teen runaway sex workers, is going places: he's got the looks and charisma to be the next, I don't know, Ryan Gosling. I've heard he's quite good on the show Bates Motel. Andrea Riseborough, as the news journalist, should be a shoe-in for the next big crime-drama.

Disconnect has a lot going for it: skilled director, based on a current trend of social media culture, and some admirable performances. It's just a bit too preachy and a forced cautionary tale, when the material it covers is a bit ambiguous about its morality. It certainly didn't make me stop using social media.

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