Perils of the Internet Tackled in 'Disconnect'

Henry-Alex Rubin's overlapping storylines are weakened by the film's didactic nature.

Disconnect Directed by Henry-Alex Rubin; written by Andrew Stern; with Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Andrea Riseborough, Max Thieriot, Jonah Bobo, Colin Ford, Paula Patton, Alexander Skarsgård, Marc Jacobs

The dangers of the Internet are, of course, a constant theme of talk shows. Foremost among these dangers are identity theft, pedophilia and the damage caused when nude photos of teenagers, taken willingly or via some ruse, are circulated among their classmates. “Disconnect,” the debut fiction feature from documentary filmmaker Henry-Alex Rubin (it was made in 2012 but only arrives in Israel now), takes these three dangers and places them at the center of three stories that eventually connect. While they are woven together deftly enough, they make the movie seem didactic, even mechanical, and this is its main flaw, despite some considerable virtues.

Moreover, since these same dangers have been explored at length in film and television, bringing them up again without saying something new about the social, cultural and political risks of the Internet and social media makes “Disconnect” seem a bit passé.

The first plotline focuses on Nina (Andrea Riseborough), a reporter for a small local television station. Nina is sick of being assigned trivial stories, so decides to make her name with a report about teens who visit pornographic chat rooms. She makes contact with a young man named Kyle (Max Thieriot). When he learns she is a reporter, he agrees to introduce her to his world. This includes living in a commune with many other abandoned youths, who make money by exposing themselves on the Internet (the pimp who oversees their activities is played by fashion designer Marc Jacobs, in his first acting role).

Nina’s story creates such an uproar that it is picked up by CNN, causing the authorities to get involved. It’s hard to believe that, even two years ago, CNN would have regarded such a story as a thrilling new exposé, given that it and other major networks have all aired many reports on the subject. What happens next to Nina – including the dilemma of whether or not to expose her sources, given that a crime is being committed – also feels too familiar, and “Disconnect” does not handle it in a very original way.

The second story deals with Ben (Jonah Bobo), a reclusive and somewhat odd-looking teen. His father (Jason Bateman) is always working; his mother (Hope Davis) is overprotective. Some of Ben’s classmates decide to play a trick on him. Pretending to be a girl who is interested in him, they contact him online and ask him to send “her” a picture of his genitals. When he agrees, they send the photo out to the entire school. The scheme involves a boy named Jason (Colin Ford), whose connection to the story is gradually revealed as more extensive than we might have thought and stems from 
different motives (which we can guess fairly easily).

The third story concerns Cindy (Paula Patton) and her ex-marine husband, Derek (Alexander Skarsgård), whose marriage is in crisis following the death of their baby. Cindy, who can’t talk to Derek about what she feels, joins an online support group for parents who lost their children. She forms a special bond with one of the fathers she meets there, but he then steals her and Derek’s identities and drives them to near-bankruptcy.

My account of the three plotlines may seem full of spoilers, but in fact the screenplay is structured so that there are no real surprises, except for the minor ways in which the three stories connect to each other.

Although what I’ve written so far might make “Disconnect” sound like a formulaic work with a hackneyed message, the movie has some emotional power. It is one of those films in which the parts are 
superior to the whole. The stories, however predictable, are well written; Rubin directs them in a candid, sensitive way; and the entire cast does good work. All this makes “Disconnect” an engaging and interesting picture to watch.

A few years ago, there was a veritable flood of movies whose parallel plotlines eventually converged to convey a common message (e.g., Paul Haggis’ “Crash” and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel”). When handled by less capable directors, this narrative structure itself became clichéd and tiresome. The deluge seems to have passed – Rubin’s picture may have been one of the last for a while – and that may be why the use of this narrative device in “Disconnect” did not turn me off, especially as Stern (scriptwriter) and Rubin put it to fairly good use.

There is something profoundly banal about the message of “Disconnect,” which cautions against the loss of human connection in a virtual world and is determined to find a silver lining, even in the most dismal of stories. But the movie is an efficient drama – in its limited way – and its virtues include Ken Seng’s cinematography, which provides the appropriate emotional tone.

“Disconnect” is hardly a work of cinematic distinction, but within the limitations of the movie – which was not particularly successful in the United States, making it both surprising and fortunate that it is being shown here – we are in for an experience just worthy enough to merit our interest.