All-star ensemble pieces in cinema are always one of the harder genres to pull off without making it seem like you don’t know what to do with your characters. They can be Oscar-nominated features such as Traffic, Crash and Babel, or disappointments, like Ready to Wear, Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. Robert Altman was the best at directing ensemble films for over four decades with MASH, Nashville, Short Cuts and Gosford Park, as is Paul Thomas Anderson with his epic character studies Boogie Nights and Magnolia in the late 1990s. Now, newcomers Henry Alex Rubin and Andrew Stern deliver not only one of the better intertwined tales of drama this year, but a story that also taps into our society’s reliance on virtual technology.
In New York City 2013, Disconnect follows five stories that revolve around texting and chatting. The film opens with a local reporter named Nina Dunham (Andrea Riseborough) logging on to a webchat with 18-year-old Kyle (Max Thieriot) who performs online half naked for money. Andrea thinks she’s found a groundbreaking story in this exploitative website. At the same time, Cindy Hull (Paula Patton) chats on a forum for people dealing with recent deaths of loved ones after her baby passes away and her husband Derek (Alexander Skarsgård) has begun to distance himself from everything. When they discover their credit card has been hacked into, a former cop turned cyber detective named Mike Dixon (Frank Grillo) searches for the thief. Mike’s own son, Jason (Colin Ford), spends most of his time causing trouble and one day decides to create a fake Facebook account to mock school outcast Ben Boyd (Jonah Bobo). Ben is very shy and lonely, and feels neglected by his own father Rich (Jason Bateman).
Technology can change so much within a matter of twelve months that films are now easily dated just based on out of date gadgets. A movie that is shot in 1997 can be seen as a different era simply because of the use of wired landlines and early PCs. Disconnect is probably the best example in recent times that displays how much communication in our society has changed. The movie features many uses of characters texting on their cells and chatting online in scenes. But rather than just show screenshots of the digital screen like in previous films, Rubin chooses to use vertical subtitles on the side of the screen to also show the characters’ reactions, which is effective and keeps the story on track and not slowing down sequences. Viewers can see actual character development from both angles of online communication and dialogue smoothly, particularly in a tense scene between Bateman and Ford chatting. Never does the audience feel bored or uncompelled.
Originally a documentarian with an Oscar nomination for Murderball, Henry Alex Rubin makes his dramatized film debut as a director here and shows his range and potential behind the camera. From the on-screen use of text, to the opening credits seen from the point of view of Bobo’s skateboard, to the effective use of slow motion during the climax of the film, Rubin knows how to grab his viewers’ attention. Andrew Stern also makes his feature debut after only two TV credits on his filmography, and subtly brings these stories together and clearly knows how to handle so many characters in just 115 minutes.
While the grown-up actors are fine with their performances, especially Riseborough as the young reporter and Bateman as the distracted lawyer, it’s the child actors that stand out and shine. Jonah Bobo transforms himself into the archetypical ‘emo’ teenager who underneath his disguise is very unhappy, and emotes primarily with his reactions and expressions impressively. Colin Ford, who previously was memorable aside Matt Damon in We Bought a Zoo, is even better in Disconnect as a son who feels frustration, carelessness and empathy, and expresses it fluidly. One of the most emotional scenes in the movie is also led by Haley Ramm as Ben’s older sister, when she tries to explain what’s happened to her brother.
Despite a couple of scenes coming off as contrived (such as a classroom sequence when Ben realizes he’s been pranked), Disconnect is an effective and telling tale of human feelings and lack of awareness in our community disguised as social commentary on the reliance of electronics.