At first glance, “Disconnect” seems a cautionary tale about the many dangers of the Internet. The characters in the film are all negatively affected in real life by their online interactions. But the reality is that people have never been that great at dealing with each other. The Internet only makes interpersonal relationships seem easier.
There are three loosely interconnected stories in “Disconnect.” Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) are struggling to cope with the sudden death of their infant son. Instead of turning to each other, they each turn to a different mode of digital escapism. She bares her soul to a purported widower in a grief support chat room while he numbs himself with online gambling. Though it’s never clear whose activities are responsible for the ensuing identity theft that leaves them broke, the Internet Crime Investigator they hire suggests that Cindy’s chat partner is to blame. So when the police are unable to help, they decide to take matters into their own hands.
Meanwhile, Mike the aforementioned Investigator (Frank Grillo), himself a widower, fails to connect with his teenage son, Jason. With the help (and influence) of his friend, Jason (Colin Ford) takes his frustration out on a classmate named Ben (Jonah Bobo) by posing as a female admirer on Facebook. But when Jason uses some of his own personal details in their heart-to-heart chats, he takes a shine to the sensitive loner and is wracked with guilt when their prank results in tragedy.
Ben’s dad, Rich (Jason Bateman), struggles to figure out exactly when he and his son became strangers and Ben’s sister (Haley Ramm) agonizes over never standing up for him when she had the chance. Ben’s mother (Hope Davis) doesn’t have a whole lot to do here other than give looks of consternation. This is a rare weak point in the otherwise excellent script.
The final thread involves an ambitious television reporter (Andrea Riseborough) who abuses the rapport she has forged with a teenage sex cam prostitute (Max Thieriot) in pursuit of her big break. The results are devastating for both parties in ways they could never have imagined.
There is a paranoid read of this film, but I believe it exists only for people who are already apprehensive about the World Wide Web. Though all of the scenarios in Andrew Stern’s script are based on true stories, they could have happened in a pre-wired world. The details would be different, but the results wouldn’t be. This film isn’t about the hazards of the Internet so much as it’s about what can happen to people who withdraw and/or aren’t honest with one another.
That’s what makes “Disconnect” so disturbing. It’s not that the Internet is eroding society. The Internet merely magnifies the pre-existing emotional erosion of humanity. Identity theft is just another outlet for the age-old grift. Before cyber-bullying, there was regular bullying. As long as teenagers have existed, they have refused to tell their parents anything about their lives. Journalists have always exploited people for a good story. As long as babies have been dying, couples have let their grief tear them apart.
It’s not all doom and gloom. “Disconnect” doesn’t overlook the positive aspects of the information superhighway. Rich actually learns more about his son through his Facebook profile than he ever would have gotten out of him in a conversation. Cindy and Derek are at first understandably mortified when their Internet histories are exposed to one another. But after they have time to process the information, they are able to use it as a jumping off point for reconnection.
Director Henry Alex Rubin (“Murderball”) brings a Soderbergh sensibility to his storytelling. That’s not always a good thing, mind you. But it works here. There were a couple of moments when I thought the narrative was going to dip into melodrama, but despite an editing misstep at the climax, they managed to keep things on the side of realism. The interconnectedness of the stories seems like a contrivance at first, but in a world in which we can direct message celebrities on Twitter, we really are just a click away from one another.
The performances are excellent all around but Jason Bateman is particularly engaging. He has always excelled at comedy (even when the scripts were complete tripe), but it’s clearly not the only trick up his sleeve. I guess all those very special episodes of “The Hogan Family” finally paid off.
Colin Ford has had a lot of practice looking tortured as Young Sam Winchester on “Supernatural.” But he’s not the only minor in this film with major talent. The days of Ron Howard cutesiness are over. Child actors are now expected to bring the drama as much as any of their adult colleagues.
As you may have surmised, “Disconnect” isn’t exactly a fun movie. It doesn’t necessarily bare repeat viewings. I’m fairly certain there isn’t a single joke in the entire two hours. But, as my husband noted, a movie doesn’t have to be fun to work. Movies like this haunt you for days. The Internet isn’t malevolent, but it’s comprised of humans and we don’t always use our free will for good. “Disconnect” makes you want to be a better person both online and IRL.