Living Online

Alex Rubin’s feature-film debut takes on extra urgency in information age

Jason Bateman

Jason Bateman

Another cautionary tale about the dangers of technology, Disconnect has a lot to say about how we live now—online, 24/7, drained of love, faith, the joy of serendipity and the pleasure of intimate communication. Vitally contemporary and relevant but with a bracing respect for narrative coherence, it centers on three separate sets of people who mistakenly think they’re “connected” by the Internet until they’re “impacted” in ways that wreck their lives. What used to be considered threateningly unsettling warnings about the risks of cyberspace are now daily rituals as a wired society succumbs increasingly to sex chat rooms, Twitter insults and Facebook mischief. No need for science fiction. We’re living a new kind of cold-war reality that Ray Bradbury never envisioned.

Disconnect is a multi-strand drama in the style of Magnolia, Crash and Babel, played out by a splendid cast. In the first story, Ben, a nerdy 15-year-old introvert with musical talent posts naïve love songs online and attracts two teenage bullies masquerading on Facebook as an unhappy girl who loves him. His parents (Jason Bateman and Hope Davis) are too distracted to give him the proper guidance, attention and advice he needs, which leads him to send nude photos via his computer that get passed around at school, destroying his reputation—a humiliating act that has devastating consequences. In a parallel story thread, a depressed doctor (Alexander Skarsgård) with a failing marriage becomes addicted to online gambling and maxes out his credit cards placing losing bets, while his distraught wife (Paula Patton), struggling to cope with the death of their baby, confides in a total stranger she meets on a social-
media website who feeds on her loneliness. When they find out they’ve become victims of online identity theft, they stalk and seek revenge on the suspected perp with the aid of a widowed computer-fraud investigator (Frank Grillo) who ironically turns out to be the strict father of one of the schoolmates cyber-bullying Ben. The third panel in the triptych is about an ambitious TV news reporter (Andrea Riseborough, best remembered as the Duchess of Windsor in Madonna’s ill-fated film W.E.) who sets out to do a controversial exposé on the life of a troubled male hustler on an X-rated website (the charismatic Max Thieriot) by posing as a client, but then becomes emotionally involved and concerned with helping the boy. The sensational story makes headlines for the brassy journalist, but the publicity leads to tragic repercussions for her subject that cannot be reversed. These stories of people who live with their faces glued to iPads, smartphones and all manner of texting devices examine real dilemmas that are taking on an increasing urgency daily. The stories are doubly compelling because they are all true.

In his feature-film debut, documentary director Henry Alex Rubin (Murderball) keeps the stories aligned and on a straight path, even when Andrew Stern’s screenplay swerves into the headlights of melodrama. He reveals myriad intimacies in the context of a bigger picture, collating facts about predators and thieves who pretend to be sympathetic while using our personal information to gain access to bank accounts and Social Security numbers, webcam sex performers who get hundreds of hits per hour, and cops who don’t have the resources to investigate 25,000 calls a day reporting a new kind of crime wave that is exploding faster than they can keep up with it. There’s more information here than one movie can safely contain without confusion, and sometimes it gets too preachy for its own good. But the more the Internet connects us all, the more we need to back off and align our priorities. Too much social networking is proving to be a catalyst in cases of schoolyard bullying, divorce, suicide and homicide. The Internet has changed the world, but the harm it can inflict on disconnected people who depend on the information superhighway for everything they know is inestimable.

Despite occasional flaws, Disconnect is filled with fine performances, informed by an often sophisticated script and directed with passion. After so many idiot comedies, it’s especially good to see Jason Bateman in a serious dramatic role as an anguished father. If he wants to be taken seriously as an actor, this is a step in the right direction. He explores hidden facets of his range never seen before, in a disturbing film that says something provocative about where we are now and even more terrifying about where we’re going next. Responsible, riveting and intense, it’s a film about cybercrime that left me shaking—the movie equivalent of sticking a wet finger into a hot socket.

rreed@observer.com

DISCONNECT

Written by Andrew Stern

Directed by Henry Alex Rubin

Starring Jason Bateman, Jonah Bobo and Haley Ramm

Running time: 115 minutes

3/4 Stars