“Disconnect” is a film made very much in the post-”Crash” vein of worried social narratives: multiple characters orbiting around a core of panic. Here the issue is the Internet and all the electronic devices that promise to bring us together yet push us further apart. It’s a pressing topic, obviously. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t wrestle daily with the ethics and conundrums of our new wired society — what we gain in connectedness and give up in human connection. The movie has a ripped-from-the-headlines urgency that would make it a good place-setter before a PTA meeting or panel discussion, and lot of people may mistake the importance of the subject with excellence in filmmaking. And “Disconnect” is far from a bad movie. It’s just better at melodrama than drama.
Still, it pokes at our modern discontents with a fervor that provokes. Two callow high-school bullies, Jason (Colin Ford) and Frye (Aviad Bernstein) invent a fake Facebook girl to dupe a gentle misfit classmate named Ben (Jonah Bobo); one of those photos that Mom told you never to send out on a cellphone ends up making the rounds of high school, and tragedy ensues. Jason’s father, Mike (Frank Grillo), is a private detective specializing in Internet fraud; he comes to the aid of a troubled couple, Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgård), whose bank accounts have been emptied by persons unknown.
In a tangentially related plot line, Nina (Andrea Riseborough), a TV reporter who wants to move from fluff to hard news, interviews Kyle (Max Thieriot), a lost boy who works for a video sex-chat outfit run by the sleazy Harvey (fashion designer Marc Jacobs in a shrewd little shocker of a turn). With all this coming and going, one of the main characters turns out to be Ben’s father, Rich (Jason Bateman), a corporate lawyer who reacts to his son’s victimization by embarking on a journey of outraged discovery, burrowing down through layers of online reality to find the “girl” who destroyed his son.
From its title on down, “Disconnect” is nothing if not topical, and it itches to be a conversation starter. Agenda and sorrow lead the movie. The problem with these multi-character social dramas is that they exist at the earnest manipulations of their makers, and they can feel awfully cooked up. The filmmaker in this case is Henry-Alex Rubin, who makes his fiction-feature debut after co-directing the terrific 2005 documentary “Murderball,” about paraplegic rugby players. That film was a nearly perfect example of the drama that can be found in life, and its only agenda was honest portraiture.
Not surprisingly, the best moments in “Disconnect” are the smaller, more wayward ones rather than the scenes meant to make a statement. The couple played by Patton and Skarsgård are deeply estranged after a personal tragedy — he finds refuge in online gambling, she has a playmate she met on a grief website — but as the two track down the man who stole their identities, they find themselves on a twisted real-world adventure that brings them closer together.
The journalist crosses ethical lines in her pursuit of the sex-chat exposé, but not because she wants a story; she’s genuinely lonely, drawn to the strutting, insecure sex-toy Max in a complex web of maternalism and lust. Jason, the more sensitive of the bullies, uses the fake Facebook account to talk to Ben in late-night sessions where their gender becomes secondary to their shared adolescent pain. Underneath the hand-wringing surface of “Disconnect” is a far more nuanced drama about the way we really do reveal our true selves online — and then get too scared to follow up in actuality.
Rubin also shortchanges the subtler but more damaging aspect of the electronosphere: the way it erodes our daily social interactions. In one scene, Ben’s older sister (Haley Ramm) confides to her friends about her family’s ongoing calamity, and when one of them shifts her attention to a text from her boyfriend, the sister just snaps. It’s a galvanizing moment, perhaps the most satisfying sequence in the whole movie, because it doesn’t come from the headlines but from everyday life. The tragedy of the digital commons is that we access a wider swath of humanity by ignoring the people in front of us. “Disconnect” only occasionally grazes up against that ruinous paradox.
Rubin’s a talent, and hopefully his next films will let his characters carry his ideas instead of vice versa. Like so much in modern culture, “Disconnect” is short-attention-span theater, but its maker may yet prove to be better at the long take.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.