Disconnect (2012)

- by Matt Piucci

Disconnect is a plea, an admonition, and a quiet and convincing imperative. It shows us who we are, now, and how new things may not always be good things. We can download Library of Congress-sized packets of information at unthinkable speeds, we can all see from the top of Mount Everest to the bottom of the Marianas trench on a whim, we can call five thousand people we’ve never met our friends, but do we connect with those closest to us? America’s ongoing experiment in individualism may be failing us, it says. Despite more and more ways for us all to connect, loneliness is at an all-time high. Maybe it is time, as the film’s title suggests, to disconnect.Disconnect

Three simple stories are woven loosely together, ala Altman or Soderburg, with fine acting and a sure director’s hand; and for me, the film achieves a very satisfying and provocative result. Each of the stories gets going with some sort of online stimulus. At first, it appeared a bit obvious that there was a train wreck ahead for each set of characters. What made this picture exceptional was that it showed where the characters were headed, without revealing where they would stop and turn along that journey. Each story’s resolution is individual and surprising.

The common thread here is that the modern humans may substitute vague, unclear online relationships for real ones with those who are around them, and that disaster can be the result. Apparently the cast is not aware of Steven Stills’ admonishment to "love the one you're with". Ultimately, each of the characters in the film eventually learns the hard way that old-fashioned interaction with family and true friends will always be more satisfying than the sometimes easier, but unreal relationships found online.

The true nature of human connection is at once more simple and infinitely more complicated than the specialized, miraculous, but still somewhat crude gadgets that modern technology offers. The superficialities and dangers of modern interpersonal communication are laid out in this film, but not in a moralizing way. I have read that something like eighty per cent of human communication is non-verbal, and this film makes it clear that technology may not be making up the lost ground.

The acting was uniformly good, as I believed that these were all real people, with depth and genuine human conflicts. Jason Bateman was excellent, as were all of the younger actors. The designer Marc Jacobs makes his acting debut and is quite convincing as an online pimp who has a brothel of teenaged porn webcasters. A lesser film would present him as one-dimensionally evil, but we see he has sincere affection for the outcasts he takes into his home. Most of the characters in the film were flawed and their individual biases got them into some trouble; there were no heroes. But neither was there abject villainy.

My favorite moment in the film is the guttural, primal reaction to the impossibly rude behavior of one of her so-called “real” friends by Haley Ramm, the actress who plays the sister of a cyberbullied teenaged misfit. As she is discussing the horror of what has happened to her, pouring her emotions out to her peers, one of her friends, whose nose is buried in her cell phone and is pathetically oblivious to Hamm’s plight, interrupts her to shout about a banal web-based triumph involving some boy she likes. Hamm’s reaction? She spits in her face. I don’t think there is an app for that.

I have read some other critics who viewed the film’s methods of presentation as crude and overbearing, but I did not find that so. I believed these characters, cared about them, and wanted them to do the right thing. The larger stories and questions are left to each viewer to mull over after witnessing these three relatively small stories, each with their own minor horrors and moments of hope. When a film does that, we have cinema at its best. And I am still thinking about it.

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