It's a given at multiplexes these days that despite switch-off-your-cell-phone announcements and the occasional grumbling protest, whatever's on-screen will have to compete with tiny pockets of light from audience members unable to stay off their handhelds. Watching those glow patches come and go during "Disconnect" reinforces the film's position on how desensitized we've become to these technological intrusions. Not that Henry-Alex Rubin's schematic multi-strand drama is at all shy about articulating its themes.
Directing his first narrative feature, documentary-maker Rubin ("Murderball") has assembled a solid cast and weaves together the three interconnected stories of Andrew Stern's original screenplay with elegance and efficiency. But this is a film that voices its warning about the hazards of a wired existence with solemn self-importance. It's also quite late in the day to be pointing out that we're so plugged into our devices we often fail to see or hear the people closest to us.
"Disconnect"★ ★ ★
Starring: Jason Bateman, Max Thieriot, Andrea Riseborough, Jonah Bobo, Frank Grillo, Alexander Skarsgard, Paula Patton
Directed by: Henry-Alex Rubin
Other: An LD Entertainment release. Rated R for sexual content, nudity, language, violence and drug use. 116 minutes
That's not to say "Disconnect" is without powerful scenes, and a thread about the heedless consequences of cyber pranks among kids on social network sites probably stands to reach more adolescents than nonfiction treatments of bullying.
Nina (Andrea Riseborough) is a TV news reporter investigating porn chat sites that recruit underage teens, many of them runaways. She establishes a connection online with Kyle (Max Thieriot), at first in private chats and then cam-to-cam. They eventually meet and she convinces him to participate in an exposť, promising to keep his identity concealed. But when the story is picked up by CNN, representing a huge professional coup for ambitious Nina, it lands on the FBI's radar, placing her under pressure to betray her source.
The network's legal counsel is Rich Boyd (Jason Bateman), who has more urgent issues with his troubled 15-year-old son Ben (Jonah Bobo). An aspiring musician and friendless high school loner, Ben is targeted for humiliation by skater buddies Jason (Colin Ford) and Frye (Aviad Bernstein), who invent a female handle and begin messaging him. They start by admiring his music and then take it sexual.
Jason's father Mike (Frank Grillo) is a widowed former cop from the computer crimes unit, now working as a private investigator. Victims of credit card fraud, ex-Marine Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) and his wife Cindy (Paula Patton) hire Mike when the police prove unhelpful and the couple's savings and assets are taken. Retracing Cindy's participation in an online grief support group following the death of their baby, Mike believes he has found the identity thief. But obtaining concrete evidence proves too slow for Derek, who confronts the suspect (Michael Nyqvist).
The ways in which technology has polluted communication for these people are laid out with exacting thoroughness in Stern's script. Rich is constantly consumed by work calls and emails at home; Ben is so plugged into a headset or a laptop that he rarely speaks; Cindy shares secrets about her marriage with a screen moniker.
The thematic points are made clearly, with well-sustained tension and no shortage of dramatic impact. It's just that it's all a bit obvious, becoming self-consciously operatic when Rubin crosscuts among the slow-mo violence that brings each story to its climax. And the ensuing moral lessons and re-established human connections are a bit too neat and tidy.
There are compelling performances to bolster the material, however.
Thieriot ably straddles the lines within Kyle. Like his flirty online persona, appearing in just underwear and tattoos, he has learned to use sex and cockiness to get by, but shows vulnerability when he starts to believe there might be another way forward in life. Ford's Jason early on reveals flickers of a conscience to distinguish him from the more callous Frye. Looking like a young Paul Dano, Bobo makes Ben a heartrendingly fragile outsider, and as the popular sister who beats herself up about ignoring his pain, Haley Ramm has affecting moments.
Standout among the bigger names is Bateman, whose obsessive determination to find the trigger for Ben's desperation drives the developments of that strand.
Riseborough is stuck with a character that becomes less credible as her interaction with Kyle continues after the news report. But Grillo is a strong presence, and Skarsgard, considerably drabbed down from his "True Blood" look, conveys the simmering anger of an Iraqi vet reduced to being a thankless paper-pusher. He and Patton effectively draw the lines that isolate them in their grief and then the slow thaw as they face a fresh crisis together.
While the city locations are somewhat anonymously anyplace, cinematographer Ken Seng gives the film a suitably cold, almost grim look, echoed in Max Richter's mainly electronic score. Extreme close-ups and on-screen text exchanges are used skillfully to engage us in the cyber dialogue, and editors Lee Percy and Kevin Tent fluidly keep each of the stories in equal play.