- - Thursday, April 18, 2013

Imagine “Crash” in the key of technology, and you have the basic idea underlying “Disconnect,” which explores the emotional toll of computer and gadget obsession through several diverse but interlocking plots.

“Disconnect” is afflicted by the same reliance on melodrama and coincidence that made “Crash” hard to swallow. The premise is that the more we connect with technology, the less we connect with the people we ought to care about. Further, the intimate, personal nature of our relationship with technology leaves us vulnerable to abuses of trust often with disastrous results. This is illustrated in overlapping stories about cyberbullying, identity theft and online sex work.

In an upscale suburban high school, Ben Boyd (Jonah Bobo) withdrawn, musically inclined, and deeply lonely leads an almost anonymous life, until he’s discovered by a pair of reckless pranksters who bait him into sharing intimate secrets by the use of a false social network profile. Ben’s father, Rich (Jason Bateman), is permanently tethered to his BlackBerry, and doesn’t notice his son’s increasing remoteness. His mother, Lydia (Hope Davis), is well-meaning, but doesn’t want to pry too much. Jonah is induced to share a humiliating nude photo of himself, which goes viral in his school and, like a story torn from the headlines, leads to a suicide attempt.

The most compelling story centers around an ambitious local television journalist who tries to get a boy who works as a kind of webcam stripper to appear in a news segment about the online sex trade. It’s a delicate seduction that mirrors the way Ben is lured by his tormentors. Nina (Andrea Riseborough) befriends teenage hustler Kyle (Max Theriot), and she’s genuinely interested in getting him to consider having a future apart from being a sex object, but she’s really more interested in getting attention for her story from the network. When it turns out that Nina’s approach to Kyle may have violated journalistic principles and federal law, she decides to cooperate with authorities who want to shut down the online sex operation. But is she helping Kyle, or is she just using him to advance her own career?


A third and slightly out-of-place plot centers around a young couple who have gone into debt trying to conceive a child to replace the baby they lost. Alexander Skarsgard plays Derek, an ex-Marine with some unspecified but clearly soul-crushing job that requires him to be on the road. He’s alienated from his wife Cindy (Paula Hull), who finds solace in online support groups. When their credit information is stolen, a cyber detective (who happens to be the father of one of the online bullies) puts together a dossier of their pilfered online lives. Only through the activity reports, chat logs and other information in this document do Cindy and Derek discover how truly distant they’ve become from each other.

Despite some fine performances, “Disconnect” is more entangled with the play of ideas than its characters. Visually it has a split personality. Much of the technological imagery is flat and unappealing like the dramatizations of online chat. But there is also visual poetry in a close-up of a pulsating brain scan on a monitor an implicit warning about reducing the scope of one’s vision to pixels on a screen.

“Disconnect” could have benefited from a few more such moments of reflective quiet. Instead, the movie has the feel of a broadside aimed at a social trend; an angry fist shaken against the dehumanizing effects of modernity.

★★ 1/2

 

TITLE: “Disconnect”

CREDITS: Directed by Henry Alex Rubin; written by Andrew Stern

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

RATING: R for flashes of nudity, strong sexual themes and profanity

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS