Now playing in a few select theaters normally reserved for independent films is the movie Disconnect. Director Henry-Alex Rubin and screenplay writer Andrew Stern have released a tale of intertwining lives in which our technology-driven world is superimposed upon a more traditional society where we all steal from and exploit others with no regard for their feelings or the trouble we bring to their lives.
Storyline 1: Nina (Andrea Riseborough) is a local TV reporter. She’s dying to get a break that leads to greater recognition, a break that comes when she discovers an online porn site featuring Kyle (Max Thieriot). He’s charming, and he uses it to get people to pay to enter into “private chats,” which are often filled with some of the sexual erotica that gave this movie its R rating. But Nina just wants to talk, which surprises him, because she’s developing a story.
After Nina twists Kyle’s arm a bit, he agrees to be interviewed, which turns table, putting Nina in the position of exploiting him and his information for her own personal gain. Sure, she changes his name for the broadcast and hides his face, but because he admits crimes, such as the exploitation of minors, the FBI contacts Nina’s station and demands that she turn over the names and location of people connected with Kyle.
Storyline 2: Rich Boyd (Jason Bateman) is the lawyer for the network where Nina works. He offers his advice in the case of Kyle’s house of pornography, but his professional problems are really the least of his concerns. He has a 15-year-old son, Ben (Jonah Bobo), who finds himself without friends, living in his own little dream world, making music. In addition to friends, he has lost touch with his family, or rather, they have lost touch with him.
This causes Ben to latch onto a social network, where he gravitates toward anything resembling human contact. Two of Ben’s classmates, Jason (Colin Ford) and Frye (Aviad Bernstein), who were seen at the beginning of the movie playing pranks on store owners by contaminating bottled drinks in the stores with their own urine, created a fictitious profile on one of these social networks, that of a sexy girl about Ben’s age who attends a nearby high school. They start making small talk with Ben, using the phony profile, and it eventually leads to them sexting a pornographic photo of a girl.
When Ben returns a naked picture of himself, they quickly disseminate the photo, via social media, to several students in Ben’s classes. This naturally leads to a case of cyberbullying, and rather than living with the shame, Ben attempts suicide by hanging himself from his bedroom ceiling.
There’s a case of identity theft thrown in to bring these two storylines together through yet another subplot: Jason’s father, Mike (Frank Grillo), is the private investigator hired by the couple who had their identity stolen over the internet.
I found two things interesting about Disconnect. First, characters exploit others, even as they are exploited by others. Perhaps the anonymity of cyberspace makes that rather easy in today’s world, but sooner or later, there’s a real person involved. For example, some real person will eventually drink from the bottle Jason and Frye urinated in.
Second, a study presented Sunday at the Pediatric Academic Societies’ annual meeting in Washington, D.C., shows that about 16 percent of US high school students are victims of cyberbullying. “Electronic bullying of high school students threatens the self-esteem, emotional well-being, and social standing of youth at a very vulnerable stage of their development,” said Dr Andrew Adesman, the study’s author, in a press release. Cyberbullying rarely leads to a suicide attempt, but movies have to take some dramatic license, I suppose.
In Maryland, a new law provides fines and imprisonment for anyone found guilty of cyberbullying. The bill, known commonly as Grace’s law, passed both houses of the General Assembly unanimously and was signed by Gov Martin O’Malley on May 2.
Digital technology, while providing easy access to good information, has also made it easier for us to isolate ourselves, withdrawing into our own fantasies. As far as Disconnect explores this quasi-pathology, wherein what we know about someone is limited to what they decide to reveal in their profiles, it shows technology’s power both to enrich our lives and to put us in harm’s way.