The title of Disconnect may be read as describing any of several things: the gulf between online and real-world interactions; the chasm that opens between human beings when spoken communication fails; our default emotional position in the face of unthinkable tragedy.
Attempting to address all three interpretations within the confines of a single movie may be courting failure, but writer Andrew Stern and director Henry-Alex Rubin go one better, adding an unnecessary cybercrime angle that muffles the screenplay's more subtle psychological insights.
That said, the film's flaws are more attributable to its ambition than its execution. Expertly weaving three loosely connected storylines, Rubin crafts a social-issues drama that's none the worse for feeling a little out of date. Opening with a galvanic traveling shot through a house where attractive young sex workers perform webcam titillation for unseen customers, the film introduces Kyle (Max Thieriot, currently stealing scenes on A&E's Bates Motel), a cocky 18-year-old who knows how to romance a camera.
But when Kyle reluctantly agrees to cooperate with Nina (the excellent Andrea Riseborough), an ambitious TV journalist planning a teen-exploitation expose, their relationship quickly becomes more complicated and more dangerous than either expects. And by the time we meet a former Marine and his wife (Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton) — who've recently lost their toddler son and are currently losing their savings and credit rating to an online identity thief — the film's fear of gadgetry is firmly established.
Whether it's in chat rooms or on Facebook, via gambling sites or cellphones, the digital universe is athrong with hidden dangers, with cyberbullies and con artists who wish to do us harm. It's a theme that might easily slip toward daytime talk show paranoia, but Rubin largely avoids that risk by maintaining a sober, patient tone and getting out of the way of actors who supply the conviction necessary to sell the melodrama. Even the designer Marc Jacobs is shockingly good in a brief cameo as Kyle's pimp; good to know he has a fallback if women ever get tired of flowery fragrances and stripey separates.
Nowhere, however, is the film's dependence on performance more obvious than in its strongest segment, in which two distracted fathers (Jason Bateman and Frank Grillo) realize too late that their sons are in crisis. Helped by exceptionally strong work from the young actors Jonah Bobo and Colin Ford, Rubin teases out the nuances of loneliness that can drive reckless behavior, blurring the line between victim and villain. The result is a moving meditation on modern family that, in its attempt to locate the permeable boundary between flesh and fantasy, could easily have stood alone.
Even in the heightened awareness of a post-Catfish age (and its spoofs), Disconnect is naturally gripping. Using unforgiving closeups, Rubin pokes into unexpected corners— not least the different ways in which men and women respond to calamity — and never forces his story's social-media scares to improbable heights. Our hard drives may or may not harbor predators; perhaps even scarier is the film's reminder that they definitely hold our secrets.