"I'm living with a family of fake people."
So says a text message sent by Ben Boyd, a moody, introspective, Radiohead-loving adolescent who's more at home in his head, in his music and online than he is with his own family.
Ironically, the person Ben thinks he's communicating with, a young woman named Jessica who's friended him on his social media page and taken a liking to music Ben's posted, really is fake. "She" is actually two bullies who are preying upon the unsuspecting Ben the way hungry lions go after vulnerable wildebeest calves. By the time he realizes Jessica isn't Jessica, Ben has been baited into sending a naked picture of himself, a picture that soon goes viral … and prompts the horrified youngster to hang himself.
That's just the first of four seriously cautionary tales in Disconnect, a movie about how Internet-enabled relationships promise more intimacy than they deliver, even as digital connections unwittingly undermine our most important real-world relationships.
Disconnect's second story revolves around an alienated husband and wife. Derek and Cindy are struggling with the loss of their one-year-old baby and their inability to get pregnant again. Derek has shut down emotionally, retreating into his work (which requires lots of travel) and into online gambling. Meanwhile, Cindy is desperate to talk, and she finds a compassionate ear in a widower who goes by the username "fearandloathing" in a grief-and-loss Internet chat room.
But when Derek and Cindy become the victims of identity theft, online security specialist Mike Dixon tracks down fearandloathing and discovers that Cindy's confidant—real name Stephen Schumacher—is actually a savvy thief milking her for information. When Derek asks Mike what he'd do in their situation, the latter replies, "I'd strangle the son of a b‑‑ch." Thus, Derek and Cindy perilously seek to turn the tables on the thief.
Mike, however, has problems of his own. A widower, he's doing the best he can to raise his adolescent son. But even though he's adept at sorting through other people's online missteps, he's not so good at it with his own flesh and blood. His son, Jason, is one of Ben Boyd's bullies—yet another blow to the father and son's already troubled relationship.
Finally, putting an exclamation point on 21st-century society's damaged ideas about intimacy is Kyle, a formerly homeless 17-year-old who now lives in a house with other teens doing sex webcam work under the watchful eye of their digital pimp. It's a story that ambitious reporter Nina Dunham wants to tell. But when she convinces Kyle to talk—anonymously, of course—it ends up on the national news and invites the attention of the FBI. If Nina wants to keep her job, high-powered lawyer Rich Boyd—Ben's father—tells her she's going to have to turn Kyle and his outfit in.
Disconnect invites viewers to wrestle with the suggestion that many people in the Internet age are more likely to seek emotional (and sexual) intimacy with complete strangers online than they are with the people they're closest to. The results, the film further suggests, can be devastating.
Ben is an artsy, quiet, misunderstood kid who's not only an outcast at school, but an outsider in his own home. When he tries to commit suicide, his action serves as a catalyst for the family to take a hard look at what they value and how they're living. Dad spends hours going through Ben's pictures and music, really getting to know his son and lamenting the fact that he didn't do so earlier. Sis mourns the fact that she did nothing to protect her brother from those who taunted him. And the family comes together in a way that they never have before.
Rich also reaches out to "Jessica," who at this point is being personified via texts by Jason. Jason feels guilty about a prank that got out of hand, and begins an odd relationship with the older man—one in which Rich acts as a kind of accidental surrogate father. It's clear that Jason's relationship with his own father, Mike Dixon, is damaged, and Rich's willingness to reach out and "talk" proves strangely cathartic for both … until, that is, Rich learns the truth about Jason's role in his son's suicide attempt. Still, this odd relationship once again illustrates the film's main point about how easy—and dangerous—it is for complete strangers to fill important emotional roles in one another's lives online.
Meanwhile, Derek and Cindy's quest to track down Schumacher is fraught with peril. But as they go forward, the couple begins to talk again. And in the end it turns out that Schumacher is also a victim of identity theft, a fact that ultimately stays Derek and Cindy from perhaps assaulting the man. He's "just another victim," Mike tells them, reinforcing the movie's theme that the Internet claims many such victims.
As for Nina and Kyle's relationship, it's a muddy one, to say the least. At some level, Nina genuinely wants Kyle to get out of his "career" doing sex work on webcams. On another level, though, Kyle (brutally) helps Nina see that she was just using him to get a story that would burnish her career. Kyle accuses her of being even more exploitative than the job he's in, an accusation that clearly rocks Nina.
Nina suggests that Kyle could get out of his webcam work with the help of a youth organization or perhaps a church. When she mentions church as a possible resource, Kyle scoffs.
Here's the thing about Kyle: He likes his job, which mostly involves masturbating in front of strangers online. His housemates, likewise, both male and female, do solitary sex shows via webcams. We see three topless young women walking around. Kyle talks to one of them in her room, and she appears to be holding a sex toy.
Most of the teens "working" in the house seem to be there of their own accord and get paid, Kyle says. From his perspective, they're not being exploited, but are willingly choosing to participate. Nina tries to help him see how their age and vulnerability (most were homeless) essentially make them exploited sex workers, but Kyle rejects that perspective.
Nina initially poses as a customer to "get to know" Kyle. He repeatedly asks her if she wants him to "jack off," and is confused when all she wants to do is chat. (That's because Kyle's entire world is a sexual one.) Over the webcam, he asks Nina, "Would you f‑‑‑ a dirty, hairy homeless guy for a million bucks?" When Nina says no, Kyle starts raising the price in the hypothetical transaction. At $5 million, Nina says she'd do it, which prompts Kyle to say, "You see, everybody has their price." Later, in person, Kyle propositions Nina and begins to kiss her; she pulls away and doesn't allow their increasingly confused relationship to go there.
Meanwhile, Nina is in a romantic relationship with her supervisor at work, and we see the pair have sex. Explicit movements are shown, and her breasts are visible afterward. She then asks him for permission to do the story on Kyle, implying she's not above sleeping with someone to achieve her professional aspirations. Nina is also shown in the shower, with her back to the camera.
Jason and best friend Frye send a picture supposedly of Jessica with her underwear pulled down. (We see the photo briefly.) Across her stomach are the words "Wild Thing." Ben responds by stripping down (we see him take his shirt off) and writing "Love Slave" in lipstick on his thigh before taking a picture of himself naked. (We don't see this one.) Once the picture goes viral, many people meanly comment about his "small" anatomy on his social media page.
Online conversations between Cindy and Schumacher find her confessing that her husband is not interested in physical intimacy anymore.
Ben hangs himself in his room, and his sister discovers him. He's jerking and twitching, not quite dead. He's hospitalized in a coma for the rest of the movie, and it's implied he'll never wake up.
The film concludes with simultaneous, violent confrontations between three different sets of characters. A fistfight is "enhanced" with a hockey stick. A shotgun is used in a threatening manner. And an escalating verbal battle devolves into a guy hitting Nina, knocking her to the ground.
Crude or Profane Language
About 50 f-words and 15 s-words. We hear "b‑‑ch" and "h‑‑‑" three or four times each, as well as crude slang for the male anatomy. God's name is abused nearly 20 times, twice paired with "d‑‑n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Kyle smokes marijuana and shares a blunt with Nina. She declines at first, saying she hasn't smoked weed since high school. But he talks her into it, and she gets stoned with him. As they continue toking, she jokes about being hungry, and he coaches her in how to blow smoke rings.
We see people smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine and champagne.
Other Negative Elements
Jason and Frye urinate into water bottles at a local gym, then replace the bottles in a cooler and watch as someone buys them.
Derek and Cindy break into Stephen's house looking for evidence. When Mike realizes his son and Frye are Ben's persecutors, he wipes Frye's iPad clean of evidence. Mike frequently belittles Jason.
Thanks to social media and the Internet, we're digitally connected to more people than ever before. But as many social commentators have noted as of late, the word digital may make all the difference between those connections being a great thing or a devastating thing. Instead of real, life-giving connections with others, many people get conned by counterfeit intimacy—virtual relationships that ultimately serve as a shallow substitute for the genuine article. Or worse.
Disconnect locates the scabs of online wounds and then digs underneath them, relentlessly picking at this painful reality.
It's brutal to see the end result of a young boy's longing for love and affirmation get turned so horrifically against him, an outcome that leaves him dangling at the end of rope.
It's brutal to hear a 17-year-old argue that performing sex acts in front of strangers is a fulfilling vocation for him—not to mention seeing the other young men and women deceived by this lie.
It's brutal to see a veteran reporter come to the realization that she herself is willing to exploit someone if it means furthering her career.
It's brutal to see parents and husbands and wives learn, too late in some cases, how badly they've failed one another.
It's brutal to watch Disconnect, an unflinching movie—and unflinchingly graphic at times—that paints a dark portrait of the even darker side of our technological age.