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‘Disconnect’ Explores Perils Of Online World

This film image released by LD Entertainment shows Jason Bateman in a scene from "Disconnect." (AP/LD Entertainment)

This film image released by LD Entertainment shows Jason Bateman in a scene from “Disconnect.” (AP/LD Entertainment)

The new movie “Disconnect,” which opened in theaters Friday, is a cautionary tale. It uses four intertwining stories to explore what can go wrong when people get ensnared by the digital world.

In one scene, Alexander Skarsgård plays a man who consults with a private investigator (played by Frank Grillo) after being victimized by cyber crime:

Skarsgård: “So when do you think the cops are going to question this guy?”

Grillo: “Ah, you know, it’s like I said, these cops, they’re swamped. You know, they don’t have the resources. It’s like 25,000 people a day get their identity stolen. So take a ticket.”

Jason Bateman plays a pivotal role in the film, too. The movie’s director, Henry-Alex Rubin, studied film at Phillips Academy in Andover and told WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer that the issues tackled in “Disconnect” span the generations.

Henry-Alex Rubin: No one knows what the rules are for our relationship with electronic devices and we are all making them up for ourselves. I hear couples tell me that they have no-devices-in-the bedroom rules. I have friends who play a game where they put their phones in the middle of the table and the first person who reaches for it has to pay for the meal. The truth is that these devices are incredible. But there is another side to it, which is that we sometimes alienate those people who are right next to us physically.

Sacha Pfeiffer: And they can do a lot of damage, which your movie looks at.

Yes. I mean, technology itself is completely neutral. It’s not bad; it’s us and how we use it. You know, technology has put the Mars Rover up and it also has developed drones that can kill people from miles away. So technology does whatever we want it to do. And I think that when people have problems communicating, that might be exacerbated by this technology.

I found this movie really riveting, even though it was hard to watch in ways. There was this boy who was basically cyber-bulled. He’s sort of tortured online. And there’s a scene where he gets a sexting photo in the cafeteria when he’s sitting alone and his immediate instinct is just to slap the phone over. He’s so shocked he got the picture that he has to turn it upside-down. I thought that acting was so true to life.

Thanks. I mean, he had never seen the photo that he was getting, so I think he was really surprised when he saw it and he flipped the phone over partially by instinct, partially because he was in the role.

You planned it that way? That when he was filming the scene he would not have seen that picture until that moment?

I did a lot of that. Because I come from the documentary [world], I didn’t really know how to make a fiction movie. I sort of improvised my way through it, and a lot of the things that I did was not tell characters certain things that were happening or that were about to happen. There’s a scene in the movie where a girl gets spit in the face and she had no idea that that was going to happen and is totally stunned and had a line that she didn’t say because she just didn’t know how to react.

So that shock of being spat upon that I thought was great acting was actual true shock?

That was true shock, yeah.

Your movie focuses on victims, but it also focuses very closely on at least one perpetrator. And as the movie moves along, the audience really begins to feel empathy for this kid. Why did you feel it was important to show that side, as well?

When I approached this film I just wanted to make it as realistic as possible, and one of the things I did is I found real people who had experienced every situation in this film. So I found a kid who had performed online pornography and interviewed him. I found a reporter. I found FBI agents. I found a cyberbully. I met two of them, actually, and I was struck by how non-criminal they were. They were just goofy kids. One guy was actually a little bit shy. The other one very outgoing but just always searching for a laugh, and you could tell that that was the instinct that ends up bullying.

But these kids, they were sweet and they were remorseful. So you could see both sides. When we make it into a very simple black-and-white issue and turn the perpetrators into cartoons, that doesn’t help anyone because you can’t relate to it and you think, “Well, I don’t know anyone like that and I would never do that.”

Using Jason Bateman as this key and quite serious character was interesting to me because I normally associate him with lighter fare.

Yes. This was me going a little bit out on a limb because he is considered a comic actor and everybody sees his face and expects to laugh. But I give him a beard and gave him what I hope is the beginning of a very real dramatic career. He really stunned me with how subtle and powerful his acting was. He’s someone who has been on set all his life and is such a skilled performer that he was doing very tiny things just with just an eye flicker. There are scenes in this movie that are just Jason Bateman’s eyes as he’s typing a conversation online, and you get a lot from just eye movement with Jason.

Here’s “Disconnect’s” trailer:

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