Movies take time to make. So it's rare for a film to appear in theaters that feels as if it were just ripped from the headlines. The type of real-life event echoed in "Disconnect," though, has lamentably begun occurring more frequently. Just this month, details emerged of two teenagers who hanged themselves after digital photographs of them allegedly being sexually assaulted went viral at their schools. Rehtaeh Parsons was Canadian and Audrie Pott was American, but the circumstances of their deaths were disturbingly similar.
The most gripping of the trio of loosely connected stories of Internet-fueled destruction in "Disconnect" centers on a student humiliated when a nude photograph gets forwarded around the school. There's no sexual assault: Two troublemakers create the fake persona of a sensitive girl who's interested in the lonely boy's music and persuade him to send "her" a picture. But the parallels are enough to make "Disconnect" painful to watch. It'd be more than worth it, though, if the film had just a bit more intelligence.
Ben (Jonah Bobo) is a typical teenage loner, although he seems to have more talent than most. With no friends, he spends his after-school afternoons making music at home. He's an easy target for ne'er-do-wells Jason (Colin Ford) and Frye (Aviad Bernstein). They set up a Facebook page for a fake female and lure Ben into meaningful late-night chats. Director Henry Alex Rubin closes in on Ben's small smile when the boy receives a message from "Jessica," and we immediately see how much this hint of human contact means to him. Ben doesn't confide in his parents (Jason Bateman, the star of this show, and Hope Davis, in the thankless role of the archetypical caring mom), even after he learns the whole thing was a cruel joke.
|» Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars|
|» Starring: Jason Bateman, Frank Grillo, Andrea Riseborough, Paula Patton|
|» Director: Henry Alex Rubin|
|» Rated: R for sexual content, some graphic nudity, language, violence and drug use, some involving teens|
|» Running time: 115 minutes|
Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgard), meanwhile, are struggling to stay afloat after an identity thief drains their bank account. They also struggle to stay together, because after they hire an investigator to find out who robbed them, Cindy learns that Derek took out a second mortgage to feed his online gambling habit and Derek discovers that Cindy got awfully close to a fellow member of an online grief support group.
Kyle (Max Thieriot), meanwhile, is making money off the Internet. He's an underage participant in a website in which viewers can pay to play -- though only through webcams. Nina (Andrea Riseborough), an ambitious television reporter, wants him to tell his sad story on her news show. But the guy running the racket (designer Marc Jacobs, in a fine film debut) might not appreciate the publicity.
"Disconnect" is at times heartbreaking, and at times frustrating. The false-friend story is told, for the most part, perceptively. But the other two tales strain credulity too often. They feel old. In this century, isn't it more likely that a smart lad like Kyle would go it alone and keep all the profits of a business that has pretty low overhead? And would an investigator really hand a husband his wife's detailed chat logs that aren't necessary to the case?
And, of course, all three stories climax at the same time. We're forced to switch from one to the other to the other just when they're most tense.
"Disconnect" offers an important message, though. But it's not the full story of the power of the Internet. Here, every attempt to connect online turns ugly. There's no recognition that technology might bring with it good as well.