The Internet has dramatically changed the world. That much we know. Our lives are better for it, on balance. But it’s the other side of that scale, the harm caused by our web-connected lives, that is the weighty focus of “Disconnect.” The damage that can be done, intentionally or not, has been well-documented. Writer Andrew Stern and director Henry Alex Rubin have selected several examples of the Internet age’s unfortunate downside and crafted three compelling story lines, all based on actual cases. This common narrative structure will inevitably be called “Crash-like,” but whether or not the stories connect isn’t really the point of “Disconnect.” The movie raises a danger sign that, if gone unheeded, will only result in more senseless tragedies — countless lives ruined, innocent children lost — and putting the spotlight on several unsuspecting victims of our Internet society makes for a powerful experience that packs an emotional wallop from opening credits to finale.
This is one of those films for which, as a non-spoiler reviewer, it’s best for me to avoid the specifics of the script and who does what here. You’ll have to discover that for yourself. But, needless to say, Disconnect is not the feel-good movie of the year. It’s often sad and scary, dark and depressing at times, and knowing it’s based on true stories makes it all the more devastating when we witness the consequences of our seemingly-innocuous actions when entering a chat room, looking for virtual companionship, playing a childish practical joke, or putting our personal information online.
Every actor in the huge ensemble cast, from adults to teens, is superb. Without giving away their exact roles, Jason Bateman does a dramatic star turn here as a caring father in an unfathomable situation. One of our most prolific and underrated actors, Bateman has appeared in 22 features since I began attending the Toronto Film Festival six years ago, including my fest faves “Juno” (Toronto 2007), “Up in the Air” (Toronto 2009), and “Paul” (SXSW 2011). As the commanding lead in one of Disconnect’s three story lines, charismatic 23-year-old Max Thieriot dominates the screen in every scene he’s in. Colin Ford (15 at the time) turns in one of the most heartwrenching youth performances I’ve seen in years as a typical mischievous youngster with a penchant for playing pranks. Other standouts include Paula Patton, Frank Grillo, Alexander Skarsgård, Jonah Bobo, Aviad Bernstein, Andrea Riseborough, and Hope Davis. All demonstrate a clear passion for the material and belief in Henry Alex Rubin’s lofty vision. Your pulse should be checked if you don’t shed a tear (or two, or more) during the viewing of this movie.
Production values are quite high for an independent film. Lighting subtly matches the tonal changes of each storyline. A warm color palette provides a soft amber glow around characters driven by affection. A family whose life is orderly and organized is bathed in white, with bright primary colors on flat surfaces with square geometric shapes and sharp angles. The milieu turns dark and shadowy as innocence turns to evil. Max Richter’s haunting score similarly complements each disparate narrative as their respective characters are drawn deeper into the dilemmas they’ve created.
The cinematography is a character unto itself. Ken Seng’s adept camera-work is consistently magnificent in its use of techniques like frame-within-a-frame, with shots peering through windows and doors as though we’re voyeurs, faces often half obscured by laptops. Objects move in and out of frame, partially blocking our view, as though we’re spying on the subjects. Point of view shots of computer and phone screens occupy much of the frame in many crucial scenes. The film is filled with such bold choices. All serve to enhance and echo the themes laid out by the broad premise of unintentional connections caused by the disconnect between our fingers on the keyboard and the humans at the other end.
Editor Lee Percy had the challenging task of making it all coherent. Knowing where and when to cut, whether or not to weave the stories together or keep them parallel, when to converge and diverge — these are all crucial decisions that are key to the success of the project.
“Disconnect” sits near the top of all the pictures I’ve seen this year and is one of the few which prompted me to utter the word “masterpiece” quietly as the credits rolled. As one tends to have intense feelings about a film in its immediate afterglow, I often wait for the emotional excitement to die down before writing my review and assessing its impact. “Disconnect” haunted me throughout the rest of the festival and has continued to do so. Will a movie like this alter the way we interact with technology? Probably not. But one less life shattered will make it worth it.