In its attempt to address weighty social problems through intertwining storylines, Disconnect fails not so much because of its occasional self-seriousness or didacticism than it does from a scattered plot that makes the film’s overriding theme or message difficult to grasp. The story seems predominantly concerned with the ill effects of modern-age gadgets: in one storyline, a couple (Paula Patton and Alexander Skarsgård) has their identities stolen over the Internet and find themselves with empty bank accounts and maxed-out credit cards; in another, an unpopular teenager (Jonah Bobo) becomes the victim of cyber-bullying when two schoolmates create a fake girl’s Facebook account and start sending him flirtatious messages. Still, Disconnect also focuses on two emotionally fraught father-son relationships, suggesting a different, stronger thematic link between plots, albeit one that doesn’t encompass the whole film. And that doesn’t account yet for the seemingly outlier story of Kyle (Max Thieriot), an 18-year-old who works for a sex site and becomes the central subject in a local journalist’s exposé. In this case the tie to the rest of the movie is, once again, the effects of our increasingly digital lives, though only because Kyle performs for his customers through a video camera, a tenuous link which mostly serves to prove how feebly Disconnect criticizes modern technology.
Almost everything about Disconnect suggests that our screens are making us increasingly removed, lonely people. Those who post their songs on Facebook, share painful stories in chat rooms, try to find solace in online poker, or spend every waking moment attached to a cellphone become increasingly emotionally detached from those around them. It’s only the arrival of tragedy that reminds them of the flesh-and-bone loved ones in their lives who need their attention as well. The film falters because it builds up from a certain cynicism toward digital culture rather than moving toward it using characters or plots that might engage us independently of how they serve the story’s larger thematic purpose. That’s why, though it might seem unfair to dig desperately for one all-encompassing, underlying meaning to a film that might not have one, the process reflects the viewing experience: With little holding the movie together besides the possibility of a larger argument at its heart, much of your energy gets expended trying to figure out what the latter might be. The major difficulty isn’t hard to diagnose. Disconnect suffers a problem familiar from other hyperlink-cinema films, only with unfortunate irony in this case: Just as Facebook friendships can’t compare to real-life relationships, neither do casual connections established between characters make, in and of themselves, for a more substantive movie.