Here’s a movie that more or less came out of nowhere. It wasn’t on my radar at all. In fact, I’d never heard of it. For that matter, I’d barely heard of director Henry Alex Rubin — and that was for a documentary of his I’ve never seen. The idea behind Disconnect that social media, cellphones etc. actually drive us all further apart rather than bring us closer together — with all our texting and Facebooking and whatever — appealed to me a good deal since I think it’s painfully true. The technologies don’t really offer human interaction so much as a pale imitation of it — without the messiness of actual contact. The question in my mind was how the premise could be turned into effective drama. TV scribe Andrew Stern (and it shows in some of its simplifications) didn’t actually solve that problem, but he and Rubin did find a way to turn it into an oddly interconnected trio of stories that, while melodramatic, effectively explore the dynamic by examining the fallout of modern notions of connectivity. No, it doesn’t all work — and it sometimes feels like a much smarter take on Paul Haggis’ Crash (2005) — but enough of it works to make it a worthwhile film.
Actually, the first few minutes of Disconnect — involving a badly lit online encounter between “barely legal” website hunk Kyle (Max Thieriot, House at the End of the Street) and news-hungry TV reporter Nina Dunham (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) — had me groaning that I was in for two hours of video-looking cheese, but the film quickly got beyond that low-rent look. The story of Kyle and Nina is only one aspect of the film. There are two other stories (all three have a certain amount of connection to each other, though the characters don’t realize it, thanks to the insularity of the online world). The weakest storyline involves a wife, Cindy Hull (Paula Patton), whose grief over the loss of a child finds no solace in her taciturn husband, Derek (Alexander Skarsgård). As a result, she becomes online chat buddies with Stephen Schumacher (Michael Nyqvist from the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) — only to find her and her husband’s bank accounts systematically emptied, supposedly by Schumacher.
The strongest story — and easily the most complex and layered — deals with a mopey outsider kid, Ben Boyd (Jonah Bobo, Crazy, Stupid, Love), who finds himself on the receiving end of an elaborate online prank engineered by two classmates, Jason (TV actor Colin Ford) and Frye (newcomer Aviad Bernstein). They’ve created a bogus Facebook account for a nonexistent girl called Jessica Rhony in order to lead him on and make fun of him — leading to tragic results. What makes this work is less the act itself than the fact that Jason not only feels guilty about the whole thing, but comes to share his own intimate thoughts with Ben while posing as Jessica. (This is taken to such a degree that Frye’s question, “Are you in love with him?” is not without point.) It’s not the bullying aspect of this that works so well as it is the way that it touches on the basic ease with which Internet encounters — especially those behind screen names — can be so casually (and safely) cruel in ways that wouldn’t happen face to face.
I don’t mean to sell the other branches short, though. The section involving the relationship between the reporter and the boy-turned-online-porn-performer is nearly as strong (mostly due to Max Thieriot’s performance as Kyle). It manages to underscore every brashness with the fact that Kyle is really just a scared kid who wants to be loved, whether by Nina or his pimp (fashion-designer-turned-actor Marc Jacobs). All of the performances are strong, though — and Jason Bateman is very good in the wholly dramatic role of Ben’s father.
That the film finally topples over into an at times unrealistic three-way bout of melodrama intercut between the stories so that everything seems to explode at once, but it does make for effective drama. In fact, that’s what makes the film work for me — that it’s invariably compelling as drama. Whatever the film’s shortcomings, I always believed in and cared about its characters. And that always trumps everything else. Rated R for sexual content, some graphic nudity, language, violence and drug use — some involving teens.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas