Web Gone Wild

04.12.13

‘Disconnect’: A New Film About Cyberbullying, Identity Theft, and Porn

This dark new movie, in theaters Friday, explores communication—or the lack thereof—in the digital age and the Internet’s underbelly. The director and stars, including Jason Bateman and Alexander Skarsgard, discuss the film.

The Internet can be a pretty sinister place.

It’s a gateway for identity theft, which scammed Americans out of some $48 billion in 2012; it’s the delivery system for cyberbullying, which affects almost half of all American teens, according to the National Crime Prevention Council; and it’s led to the proliferation of child pornography, with the FBI reporting 5,900 pending child-pornography/child sexual-exploitation investigations as of April 2012—up from just 80 in 2001. And it has fundamentally changed the way we communicate—or connect—with the ones we love.

All of these dangers are explored in the new feature film Disconnect, written by Andrew Stern (no relation) and directed by Henry-Alex Rubin. 

“Technology is the most exciting thing in the world,” says Rubin. “It can bring such joy, but also danger and alienation. It can build Mars Rovers … and Hellfire missiles.”

Rubin’s dark, expertly acted film follows three interconnected stories.

After befriending Kyle (Max Thieriot), a hunky, 18-year-old webcam-sex performer online, a greenhorn broadcast reporter (Andrea Riseborough) films a segment about the live-sex trend among struggling teens, but gets more than she bargained for when the FBI enters the fray demanding she reveal her source—since Kyle’s creepy employer, played by designer Marc Jacobs, also employs underage children.

Then there are absent-minded parents, Rich and Lydia (Jason Bateman and Hope Davis), whose 15-year-old outcast son (Jonah Bobo) is duped online by a couple of sadistic classmates. The two creeps develop a fake Facebook profile of a girl, strike up a friendship with the boy, and then ask that he send over a nude photo of himself, which they circulate throughout the school. When Kyle catches wind of what’s happened, he hangs himself, sending Rich on the warpath for the perpetrators.

And in the last thread, Derek (Alexander Skarsgard), a former Marine struggling to find his place in society, has his identity stolen online—wiping out his bank account. A security expert (Frank Grillo) suggests that the culprit is a man (Michael Nyqvist) whom Derek’s wife (Paula Patton) had been communicating with via a grief website, since she is still mourning the death of their infant son. So Derek, ever the soldier, goes on the hunt for the suspect and brings his wife along for the ride.

In order to prepare for the film, Rubin, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker who co-directed 2005’s Murderball, interviewed webcam-sex performers, FBI agents, cybercrime detectives, identity-theft victims, and even a teen cyberbullier who had sent a photo around his high school of a girl he slept with, which destroyed her life and made her suicidal. And, while the self-described “avid Instagrammer” agrees “technology is a theme” of the film, it’s not intended to be “anti-technology propaganda.”

You forget to deeply connect with people you’re physically with because you’re online being distracted, making plans for the future, or whatever else you do online.

“There are some out there preaching digital dieting, and Arianna Huffington watched the movie and wrote a whole op-ed about why we should detach ourselves from our devices,” says Rubin. “It’s a very first-level reading of the movie.”

Despite its edict-sounding title, Rubin and his cast say the film is really about how lost souls can stop relating to, or communicating with, one another. Oftentimes, people need to refocus and dedicate more time to real-life interactions. And yes, that may require you to put away your gadgets.

“By definition, ‘surfing’ the Internet is ‘surfing’—you’re just navigating the surface,” says Skarsgard. The Swedish actor—and True Blood star—is far from a technophile. While he says he uses email, as well as Skype to communicate with his family in Sweden, he avoids social media, and says, “I’ll never, ever Google myself.”

“The Internet is very convenient because to really stop and go deeper takes more of an effort,” he says. “You forget to deeply connect with people you’re physically with because you’re online being distracted, making plans for the future, or whatever else you do online.”

His co-star Bateman, by contrast, describes himself as “very Internet savvy” with “a steady-geeky obsession with fantasy baseball.” And Disconnect marks a rare dramatic role for the Arrested Development star, who lives up to the challenge and delivers arguably the film’s finest performance as the distracted father of a cyberbullied son. And while Bateman, who is the father to two young children, says he believes in people making their own decisions about technology, still plans on teaching his kids about the Internet’s wide reach when they enter their teenage years.

“It’s my obligation as a parent to let them know what exactly can happen to a text, an email, or a picture if you send it out there—what the lifespan of it is, and what their capabilities of dissemination is,” he says. “If you know what the ramifications are, then it can influence your actions.”

A few years ago, Bateman was himself a victim of some very, very light cyberbullying when Us Weekly reported he was booed “by 2,000 people” after allegedly cutting a long line of people waiting to buy an iPhone 4 at a Los Angeles Apple store.

“It was interesting to watch all these non-truths get propelled and embellished online, and I was foolish and novice enough to try to address those untruths via Twitter, and that just gave it another cycle,” says Bateman, who later added, “The invention of the car made transportation a little more dangerous than walking or riding a horse, but you’ve just got to be more careful [with technology].”

Max Thieriot, the 24-year-old actor who plays the webcam sex performer Kyle, completely transformed himself for the role—dieting to make him “shredded” and getting fake tattoos all over his body, each with a different story. And like Rubin, Thieriot met with several people in the porn industry to help him prepare for the role. But the film was also a bit of a personal one for Thieriot, who had his identity stolen two years ago.

“People ran up tons and tons of money—about $12,000,” he says. “I’m an avid outdoorsman and all the charges were made at REI-type places, and I even called one of the stores and the lady said his voice sounded similar to mine. It felt like I was personally violated. I was ready to drive down and knock on this person’s door, but I called my buddy who was a police officer who told me to just drop it.”

On Monday evening, the New York premiere of Disconnect had a very special guest: Google co-founder Eric Schmidt. After viewing the film, he pulled Rubin to the side and told him, “You got it right.”

“A lot of the characters are connected via the Internet but disconnected when it comes to actual human connections,” says Thieriot. “We just need to connect better … as people.”