Disconnect (2012) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for sexual content, some graphic nudity, language, violence and drug use - some involving teens
Running Time: 115 min.

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Jason Bateman, Paula Patton, Frank Grillo, Alexander Skarsgard, Jonah Bobo, Max Theriot, Colin Ford, Hope Davis, Michael Nyqvist, Haley Ramm, Aviad Bernstein
Director: Henry Alex Rubin

Screenplay: Andrew Stern
Review published September 11, 2013

Henry Alex Rubin, who co-directed the critically acclaimed documentary Murderball, takes on the all-too-real dangers of the internet with Disconnect, a title that can be seen as a noun, or as a subtle imperative to its audience. It's an ensemble piece in the Crash vein, with several intersecting storylines surrounding one central issue, which is how the internet and, in particular, social media, which purports to be able to keep everyone connected in the virtual world, is actually driving many people apart in the physical world.

In the converging storylines, Cindy (Patton, 2 Guns) and Derek Hull (Skarsgard, The East) are stuck in a stagnant marriage, having never recovered from the untimely death of their infant son. As Derek pulls away into the allure of online gambling, Cindy is also frequently online chatting, perhaps a bit too intimately, with a stranger (Nyqvist, MI4) in a website support group for people trying to overcome grief and loss. Their already struggling marriage is put to a real test, though, when they become victims of identity theft, losing their savings, with no easy way to recover in sight. The cybercrime investigator hired for the case, Mike Dixon (Grillo, End of Watch), has problems at home of his own, as his son Jason (Ford, Push), along with mischievous friend Kyle (Bernstein), has created a phony Facebook profile of a young girl in order to play a prank on a fellow classmate, an emo teen named Ben (Bobo, Crazy Stupid Love) -- a seemingly innocuous prank that ultimately goes too far.

The lonely, humiliated Ben's parents, Rich (Bateman, The Change-Up) and Lydia (Davis, The Lodger), have to deal with the aftermath, trying to make sense of just how they may have gone wrong, digging into Ben's personal files to discover just how troubled and unhappy their withdrawn boy actually has been. Meanwhile, Ben is the corporate lawyer on the case for a local news station which has recently run a highly publicized expose on online teen sex sites, led by ambitious reporter Nina Dunham (Riseborough, Oblivion), who befriends one of the teen performers, Kyle (Theriot, "Bates Motel"), but may have crossed the line with him in her efforts to get the big scoop, and the authorities expect her to divulge her activities with him.

How much you enjoy Disconnect will likely be determined by how serious you find many of the events that transpire. While Crash dealt in a similar way with racism, that subject matter is more easily tangible to the public, and affects a great many more people directly. The internet material, while rife with its own series of important issues, is shown to largely exacerbate problems that are already in existence. Instead of being the root of problems the way racism is, it's more a case of adding more fuel to an already burning fire. In nearly all of the cases in the film, it's the ability to hide one's true self -- whether through identity theft, cyber-bullying, or offshore internet accounts -- that facilitates many of the egregious issues. The internet itself isn't evil; it's just that there are bad people who use it. Or ones who merely regret their time online when they should have been doing something far more productive with their friends and loved ones.

Nevertheless, even if many of the events are atypical of most people's experiences with the internet, they are definitely experiences some people have had. However, as the film builds toward its climax that culminates in moments of violence, Rubin's film, working off of a script by first-time screenwriter Andrew Stern, increasingly overplays its hand, as the scenarios go from relatable to worst-case. Not that these confrontations aren't built up properly, but rather, they make for moments that feel more like they belong in a typical dramatic thriller rather than a thoughtful commentary on the trials and tribulations of people affected by the internet's darker sides. And while most users of the internet are susceptible to identity theft and encountering people who aren't whom they claim to be, the storyline involving the adult webcam industry expose and its overly ambitious reporter speak more toward problems with the media than it does to the realm of the internet itself.

Also problematic is just how gullible the characters are painted as being. Ben grew up in the internet age, and is intimately familiar with how Facebook works, so when he willingly engages in a conversations with a girl supposedly nearby, the fact that he doesn't do any research on this girl he begins taking a fancy too seems farfetched; he doesn't ask to meet, or even go so far as to request to call her on the phone. Meanwhile, Cindy's long and detailed conversations with an anonymous person from the internet has its own contrivance, the opposite way, in that, with all of the people in the country or world she might communicate with on the website, the man she speaks with just so happens to be from her town. Nina Dunham's investigation of an online site featuring teens, some of whom are underage, also conveniently happens to be located in her town as well, which further adds to the artifice. And Ben's father, who does some sleuthing of his own in trying to come up with a reason for his son's anguish, proceeds to make connections, quite conveniently, whenever the script calls for it.

Despite the plot contrivances, both Rubin and Stern do a very nice job in their dialogue, especially in the actual language people use when communicating with each other through text and instant messages. Some of the scenes take place on the screen, as we watch one side of a conversation between the character on screen and the person on the other side, in real time. They also effectively capture the shorthand communication employed by many teens, including the lack of caring on typos and such. Though they are the epitome of lacking action from a cinematic standpoint, they are still riveting in their own way because they put the audience in the role of a voyeur, looking in on personal and intimate conversations between people who think no one else is watching. Meanwhile, the cinematography of real people also captures them in the same boxes, photographing the characters through windows, just like the windows of the computer applications, or through fences, exemplifying the borders that persist to exist between us all, allowing us to peek through, but we remain disconnected from each other physically.

Though I realize I've nitpicked, I risk making Disconnect sound worse than it is, because it isn't about the dangers of the internet, it is about the loss of intimacy with the people that should truly matter. It's about the things we tell and show a complete stranger that we should be telling to those who know us the most. In this vein, it's a good film, and still definitely worthwhile for some choice food for thought, as well as some credible performances by a talented, likeable cast. Even if the story directions are somewhat predictable, convenient, and fudged along in order to build up to a violent head, Rubin's direction is still in good form, even if the material could have used a bit more subtlety to deliver the same message without an implausibility overhead. It's the kind of film that feels important for the here and now -- how much value one gets from it in the future, when technology continues its perpetual morph into something more, may be the real question. As a time capsule of the early stages of the social media generation, it's as good an example as any, and emphasizes the importance of maintaining physical connections with people around us, rather than the distancing, fraudulent ones we're growing ever more reliant on. 

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo