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“If you wanna fuck with somebody, you do it to his face!” That’s the Father of the Year advice given by one of the daddies whose son has issues in Disconnect, a beware-the-Internet! drama that, Crash-like, weaves together three stories about how spending time online gone and done these people wrong. There’s sex, there’s stealing, there’s a prank that goes too far. It’s all fairly compelling—until it gets ridiculous.
Henry Alex Rubin (director of the 2005 documentary Murderball) and screenwriter Andrew Stern both make their fiction feature debuts here (Stern has a TV movie under his belt). Neither has a light touch with the message. The plot lines follow a local television reporter, Nina (Andrea Riseborough), who’s digging for something else online when she comes across a pay-for-play sex site and starts talking to teenage runaway Kyle (Max Thieriot); a couple, Derek and Cindy (Alexander Skarsgård and Paula Patton), whose marriage is struggling after they lose their baby boy, prompting the wife to find solace online; and two high school kids, Jason and Frye (Colin Ford and Aviad Bernstein), who invent a woman on the Internet to toy with loner classmate Ben (Jonah Bobo), who doesn’t have a great relationship with his father, the glued-to-his-cell lawyer Rich (the woefully miscast Jason Bateman).
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The stories overlap a bit, with a character from one somehow involved with the drama of another. All of their actions seem innocuous at first—except those of Jason and Frye, who are clearly little assholes—but then things go wrong. Nina puts together a report on Kyle and the teenage sex industry, which gets picked up by CNN—and then noticed by the FBI, who pressures her to give up her source. Cindy becomes online-cozy with a widower, who later becomes a suspect when the couple’s bank account is bled dry. And Ben is coerced into sending “Jessica” a naked pic of himself. Everyone knows no good could come of that.
In the first half of Disconnect, Rubin keeps things moving, jumping from story to story at natural points. But then Part 2 comes along, with each plotline’s consequences portrayed against a maudlin string score and the film’s gear stuck in snail’s-pace melodramatic. You will easily guess what happens to Ben, start thinking about your grocery list when Derek and Cindy pursue their suspect, and eventually laugh when Nina sobs over Kyle. Stern seems intent on conveying a blame-the-victim mentality, with lines like “I’m such an idiot,” “I know I’m weird,” and “no one liked me at school,” as if these self-perceived weaknesses left the characters wide open to be taken advantage of.
And then the violent, concurrent slo-mo starts, and Rubin loses the audience entirely with how ludicrous the film suddenly becomes. Depending on your age and familiarity with online dangers, though, he may have lost you from the very start—none of these consequences will be surprising to anyone who keeps up with the news. (Perhaps excluding Nina’s emotional arc, which is just bizarre.) Disconnect does make one impressive move: The one thing you are absolutely sure is going to happen in the end doesn’t. In this film, that counts as considerable restraint.