In the vein of Crash, Grand Canyon, and Babel, Disconnect, director Henry-Alex Rubin’s riveting drama that opens today, introduces us to seemingly disparate characters whose stories intersect as the film progresses. Each of the story arcs is a provocative variation on the theme of yes, disconnectedness – both physical and emotional – in today’s increasingly wired, technology-saturated, online world.
In a refreshing and exceptional dramatic turn, Jason Bateman plays Rich Boyd, an overworked lawyer glued to his iPhone, whose relationship with his wife Lydia (an excellent Hope Davis), his teenage daughter Abby (Haley Ramm), and especially his troubled 15-year-old son Ben (Jonah Bobo, the lovesick son in Crazy, Stupid, Love) is strained at best, and aloof at worst.
In a plot point all too sadly ripped from the headlines, Ben becomes the target of a cruel cyber hoax perpetrated by two classmates, Jason and Frye (Colin Ford and Aviad Bernstein, respectively), resulting in life altering consequences. Writer Andrew Stern no doubt intentionally meant for the prank to recall the true, widely publicized stories of Dharun Ravi’s stealth webcam broadcast of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University and Lori Drew’s MySpace harassment of her daughter’s high school classmate Megan Meir in Missouri.
As Jason engages in this online bullying, his stern and somewhat remote father, Mike (Frank Grillo), an ex-cop turned private detective specializing in cyber crimes, investigates a chilling case of identity theft for ex-marine Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) and his unhappy wife, Cindy (Paula Patton). They, in turn, take matters into their own hands by surveilling Mike’s identified prime suspect, Stephen (Michael Nyqvist, Mikael from the original “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), a man with whom Cindy has formed a virtual friendship in an online grief support chat room.
Meanwhile, Jason Bateman’s Rich represents a local news network when a TV reporter, Nina (Andrea Riseborough), is contacted by the FBI to reveal her source for a story about underage minors participating in paid webcam sex chat rooms.
Henry-Alex Rubin, directing his first feature film (he has two documentaries under his belt) seamlessly moves from one story to the other, and expertly weaves plot lines together with credibility and skill. The stellar cast turns what could potentially be pedantic and overwrought material into a brilliant, taut, ensemble piece that works on many levels. Not only does the film deftly explore grief, family, adolescence, and relationships, it also – and perhaps most importantly – examines how our increasing dependence on online communication is shaping and affecting all these integral parts of our lives – and not necessarily for the better.
Colin Ford as Jason is a true standout in a film filled with many fine performances. Like Tom Holland, who, as the oldest son in “The Impossible,” was the best thing in that picture, Ford is a natural who will make you feel viscerally all the confusion, angst, and melancholy of being a teenager. Similarly, Max Thieriot as Kyle, Nina’s teenage webcam interviewee, also gives a raw, compelling performance, hitting all the contradictory, yet true, notes of naiveté, boyish longing, and seen-it-all worldliness and maturity.
There are scenes in this film that are not just uncomfortable, but almost painful, to watch, but Henry-Alex Rubin gets credit for including them, and not shying away from the truths of how our wired world is fundamentally changing and alienating us. This film is without a doubt one of the most important of the Internet age, and it is probably no coincidence that the producers timed its release for only a month after this year’s National Day of Unplugging, a day when families and friends are encouraged to power down and instead actually talk and listen to each other.
Parents of teenagers may want to take their kids to this film and then have a long discussion about it, face-to-face at the kitchen table, with all iPods, iPads, cell phones, and laptops safely off and stowed away. After seeing this film, it may be quite some time before you will want to turn back to your devices; you may even decide to abandon them for good.
Disconnect opens in Bay Area theaters today.