If you are old enough to do so, let your memory travel twenty years into the past. In 1993, cellular phones were as big as bricks and few people had them. If there was an emergency and you had to call someone, it would be a toss-up whether there would be a pay phone in the vicinity and change in your pocket. For most, the Internet was still a couple years away and a far cry from what it is now. If a person wanted to research something, they either had to grab a physical encyclopedia or head down to the library. Facebook? What is that? A book with pictures of different faces? To contact someone, you either called them up from home or wrote them a letternot an email, mind you, but an actual hand-written note that needed an envelope and a stamp and everything. The auspicious fictional debut of documentary filmmaker Henry Alex Rubin (2005's "Murderball"), "Disconnect" is a penetrating examination of who we are as a people and culture living in the advanced electronic age of the here and nowa place as potentially dangerous and harmful as it is radically convenient. A handful of stories and characters interwoven together to collectively make a necessary point about the continuing need for physical connection, the film reminds in certain ways of 2005's ensemble race-relations drama "Crash
." "Disconnect" is better, thoughricher, less obvious and contrived, and fully aware that the narrative can speak for itself without the need for moralistic preaching.
In a town that could be just about anywhere but most closely resembles the Long Island area, Kyle (Max Thieriot) is a barely legal sex-cam performer who chances upon a private chat with up-and-coming news reporter Nina Dunham (Andrea Riseborough). Though she doesn't reveal who she is right away, she continues to return, hoping to build Kyle's trust and perhaps interview him for a hot-button piece about his profession and the ins and outs of what could very well be an illegal operation. Kyle eventually consents under the condition that his identity not be revealedan agreement that Nina intends to keep until her job and reputation are put on the line unless she reveals her source. For artistic, introverted 15-year-old Ben Boyd (Jonah Bobo), he has few friends and keeps to himself, writing and performing music on his computer in private until a teenage girl who supposedly goes to a nearby school befriends him on Facebook. Ben is overjoyed to have found someone he finally connects with, but there's a catch: this girl doesn't exist, fabricated by two classmates, Jason (Colin Ford) and Frye (Aviad Bernstein), who have no idea how serious the repercussions are going to be for their cruel cyber charade. Meanwhile, Cindy (Paula Patton) is looking for a shoulder to lean on after the sudden death of her infant son. With husband Derek (Alexander Skarsgård) unable to open up and talk about his feelings, Cindy finds a confidante in an online support group. When their credit cards are maxed and their funds completely wiped out, they discover they've been the latest victims of a cybercrime. When the authorities are no help and even private investigator Mike (Frank Grillo) paints them a cynical portrait of their case, the troubled couple decide to take matters into their own hands.
"Disconnect" is a labor of love and frustration from director Henry Alex Rubin and first-time screenwriter Andrew Stern, a plea for human bonding and empathy in a sea of computers and iPhones. They see their scattered characters in all their complexity, each of them about to receive long-overdue wake-up calls about the mistakes they've made and the things they should have done, but didn't. When Jason's and Frye's brand of bullying gets out of hand, Ben's rash and humiliated actions prompt his workaholic father, Rich (Jason Bateman), to look into his son's life and take more interest in who he issomething he should have taken the time to do long ago. Meanwhile, Ben's mother, Lydia (Hope Davis), and older teenage sister, Abby (Haley Ramm), blame themselves for not paying more attention. A scene in which Abby's serious discussion about her family's problems is met with cruel indifference by one of her self-involved friends is one of the best; Abby's reaction, while rash, is also completely warranted and worthy of applause from the viewer. For some people, the world truly does revolve around no one but themselves.
Better known for his comedic work than dramatic, Jason Bateman (2013's "Identity Thief
") fits right into the voluminous cast of the film, never once seeming out of place and taking deeply to heart the tough circumstances that his father character of Rich finds himself in. Hope Davis (2011's "Real Steel
") hasn't as much to do as mother Lydia, but that's part of her effectiveness, playing a woman who quietly clings to hope that her family will come out of their current crisis in one piece, but unable to get through to them. And Jonah Bobo (2011's "Crazy, Stupid, Love.
") is impossible to forget as the lonely and artistic Ben, finally getting his hopes up that he's found a friend until the truth comes crashing down around him. For Benfor most teensit is difficult to think about the future; every negative thing that happens is like the end of the world, a naïve belief if there ever was one. Making sure to not make this storyline one-sided, director Rubin also takes the time to get to know Jason, one of Ben's classmates and bullies, who feels remorse over what he's caused yet is frightened of the consequences if anyone were to find out. Colin Ford (2011's "We Bought a Zoo
") is touching in his own way as Jason, who begins as an immature, trouble-making antagonist and ends at a different, more complicated place that ensures he'll never be quite the same again.
Giving diversity and additional insight into the wide range of social media that affects these characters' lives, Paula Patton (2011's "Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol
") and Alexander Skarsgård (2012's "Battleship
") play Cindy and Derek Hull, a troubled couple who are brought together and very nearly torn apart once more when they attempt to root out the person responsibility for stealing their identities and wiping out their bank account. How they've gotten to such a low pointeven before their funds are stolenis nobody's fault but the cruel ravages of fate, and the drastic measures they take have just as much to do with the frustrating place they are in their lives and marriage as it does with a common Internet thief. Patton is exceptional at portraying the need from Cindy to connect to someone, to talk out problems Derek is unwilling to discuss, while Skarsgård displays Derek's bottled-up grief. Whereas Cindy thinks getting pregnant might be the answer to their issues, Derek isn't sure how to move on at all.
Meanwhile, in the third major plot strand, Andrea Riseborough (2011's "Brighton Rock
") is superb as novice reporter Nina Dunham, who gets a harsh lesson in ethics and the cost of making it in her profession when she must divulge information about her story subject that she promised to keep confidential. And as Kyle, the sex-cam worker who agrees to the interview under the agreement that he remain anonymous, Max Thieriot (2012's "House at the End of the Street
") is self-assured as a young man whose confidence and bravado shield a scared kid who's gotten involved with the wrong people and isn't so sure there's a future for him outside of his current seedy profession. Together, Riseborough and Thieriot share an undeniable chemistry, one that seems dangerous because it is for any number of reasons; in a different time and circumstance, their slight age difference might not be a big deal, but there is too much on the line for them to get involved with each other. If their relationship is doomed, its ending is all the more powerful in its inevitability.
"We are very busy people,"
sings The Limousines in a montage roughly midway through "Disconnect," succinctly commenting on our 21st-century existences as people who scarcely take the time to slow down, to put away our 24-hour bombardment of news and interaction via technology and see our loved ones right in front of us. While such a statement might easily border upon the melodramatic, director Henry Alex Rubin avoids such trappings. His intention is not to sermonize or to slap the viewer's wrist, but to simply open up a much-needed conversation about how we interact day to day and whether the relationships we hold dearest suffer because of the allure and accessibility of social media. The picture's final imagethat of an embrace between two people who probably haven't touched each other since they were both little kidsis emblematic of what "Disconnect" is about as a whole, an outpouring of compassion that does notcannotmean as much from behind a computer screen or cell phone text box. This, at last, is what it means to be alive, and human.