I am sometimes amazed by how much our society has been changed by the rapid advance of Internet technology during recent years. Thanks to the development of various Internet services for communication, we can contact far more easily with someone we have never met before, and our world certainly feels far smaller than before as we keep interacting with others through Facebook or twitter in real time. Whenever I walk around in my campus, I can always see students operating their smartphones, and some of them are probably communicating with their ‘friends’ on the other parts of the Earth.
But most of us are still not very good at being connected with others despite such technological advance, and “Disconnect” depicts that human fault through its three different interlocking stories associated with the possible problems of our digital era. While we can clearly sense how it pulls its strings as it juggles its plots, the movie sometimes moves us with its genuine emotional moments, and the result is an experience both compelling and thought-provoking despite its shortcomings.
Among its three plots gradually revealed to be interconnected through a few main characters, the most harrowing one belongs to Ben Boyd(Jonah Bobo) and his family. While he is a nice boy with passion for music, Ben looks nerdy and creepy with his long hair and introverted attitude, and that makes him an instant target for cyberbullying when he is spotted by two boys. After quickly finding Ben’s Facebook page, Jason(Colin Ford) and Frye(Aviad Bernstein) approach to Ben as ‘Jessica Rhony’, and Ben immediately accepts ‘Jessica’ as a Facebook friend without doubting her identity at all. You may think this is stupid, but think about what happened to Manti Te’o, an American football player who was fooled to have an online relationship with a nonexistent woman and even believed her death before everything was exposed early in this year.
It is just a prank to Jason and Frye at the beginning, but they eventually commit a very cruel thing to Ben. After establishing an online relationship for a while, they induce Ben to send them a nude picture of himself, and then they spread it around their schoolmates. Shocked and humiliated, Ben attempted suicide, and his family is devastated by this sudden tragedy. Ben’s lawyer father Rich(Jason Batesman) becomes remorseful after realizing how much he has neglected his son while occupying with his work, and he becomes obsessed with finding any clue on why his son tried to kill himself.
Meanwhile, an ambitious TV reporter named Nina Dunham(Andrea Riseborough) gets involved with Kyle(Max Thieriot), an underage chatroom stripper she encounters while looking for any possible material for her upcoming report on those illegal adult websites employing minors. She approaches to him as a client at first, and then they meet each other in person, and she persuades him to be her interviewee while promising that she will keep his identity in secret.
Things work out well as she promised to him, and her career gets a boost after her news is broadcast, but she soon finds herself in a serious trouble when FBI is interested in the identity of her source. She is conflicted about whether she should betray Kyle’s trust as demanded by FBI, but it becomes clearer that she has already exploited a boy who really likes her, and her sense of guilty only makes the situation worse.
The least successful part of the movie is about a young couple coping with their estranged relationship. Derek(Alexander Skarsgård) has not interacted much with his wife Cindy(Paula Patton), and Cindy, still grieving about their baby’s recent death, finds a small solace from a chatroom site where she talks a lot with some guy who recently lost his wife. Their relationship becomes more strained when they suddenly become the victims of identity theft, and they are frustrated to know that things will not be solved quickly although they hire a private investigator.
This part becomes less convincing as they try to take care of the matter through their amateurish detective work, but the director Henry Alex Rubin, who previous co-directed Oscar-nominated documentary “Murderball”(2005), imbues a considerable amount of realism into the screenplay by Andrew Stern, and his actors come to us as real people facing the problems we can identify with. As watching Derek and Cindy being notified of their credit card problems in the movie, I remembered how much I was shocked and flabbergasted to learn that someone stole and used my credit card during this summer(thanks to the quick measures of my credit card company, I suffered no financial loss in the end)
The actors give solid performances. Jason Batesman, usually known for his comedy films, is effective as a guilt-ridden father, and Frank Grillo is a no-nonsense ex-cop/private investigator who shows more care to his clients than his own son. While Jonah Bobo is heartbreaking as a bullied victim, Colin Ford is also good as a boy belatedly realizing what he has done and being tormented by subsequent guilt. Andrea Riseborough and Max Thieriot play off each other nicely even when they are physically separated, and Alexander Skarsgård and Paula Patton are believable as a couple with lots of emotional issues even when their story gets less interesting.
Like “Crash”(2004) or “Bable”(2006), the movie eventually gathers its interlocking stories together for the finale, but it falters during its climax decorated with jarring slow-motion shots. This feels like overkill rather than emotional catharsis, but “Disconnect” remains to be a good movie presenting its interesting social subject through its excellent individual moments, and it powerfully reminds me that, in spite of all those technological advantages, we are still struggling to do what was emphasized in E.M. Forster’s novel “Howards End” – Only Connect.