There are rare cases when sitting down to review a film, where you just don’t know where the heck to start. Joseph Kahn’s Detention is one of those films. It may be the ultimate expression of today’s lightening paced social networking-fueled society. Never giving us a second to breathe, here is a movie that combines elements from slasher films, science fiction, teen drama, and mashes it all together as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
I’ve seen the film twice. The first time I felt overwhelmed by the whole thing, and the second gave me time to observe it more clearly. I’m not sure that anything especially profound is being said, but either way Kahn has created a strong piece of post-modern cinema. Parodying countless genres as well as itself, not one moment in the film feels like it’s not referencing something from pop-culture or another film – even going so far as to namedrop Kahn’s first film (“that stupid movie Torque”).
The plot, which almost feels more like an improvisational collage of plot summaries, broadly concerns itself with high-school loner Riley (Shanley Caswell), who finds herself repeatedly attacked by a masked slasher called Cinderhella. Problem is, she’s so unpopular nobody believes her. She’s also dealing with her ex-best friend Ione (Spencer Locke), who underwent a mysterious change a year ago and snatched up lover boy Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson). The movie is divided into chapters, and all the main characters end up in detention under the stern gaze of Dane Cook’s principal – and one of them is the killer. If I said the plot(s) came together with a complicated time traveling bear and flashbacks to a mother-daughter body switch, it might start to give an idea of the kind of crazy stir-fry that’s going on in this movie.
The film is enamored with the 90’s, and the time-traveling device allows it to relish in an era that we are starting to realize is pretty far gone. Down to the clothing styles and music choices, great effort is put into getting everything just right. One of the best sequences involves a prolonged 360 shot around the study room, while progressively going back in chunks of time as the soundtrack morphs accordingly. This attention to detail is part of what makes the film so fun, along with the dazzling visual brilliance on show.
The film might be a bit too flashy for its own good, and at times it feels like the script (co-written by Kahn and Mark Palermo) is just an excuse for the camera to show off. Some of the dialogue barely has time to register before something else happens. This go-in-one-ear, go-out-the-other approach is just part of the fast pace that starts from the first frame and never lets up. In fact the opening scene, replete with live screen sized captions ala Scott Pilgrim, sets the tone for what could really be called the Speed Generation film.
It’s almost like it set out to be a time capsule for the age we live in – quick, ironic, self-aware, and with the ability to instantly switch back and forth between topics. The film starts out with the feel of an acid critique of our modern tropes and values – “Drive a hot car” flashes on screen after a slashed girl lands on said vehicle. But it isn’t a criticism of these things so much as it celebrates them. The whole film is done with the playful and chuckling spirit of high-schoolers trying to prove themselves. In the end this is not so far removed from the zesty young filmmakers who undertook this project. Joseph Kahn financed the film out of his own pocket, and has largely been promoting the film through social networks, which somehow fits right in with his film.
He is clearly a talented newcomer to the big screen, already established as one of America’s leading music video directors, and for good reason. His primary strength is for the image, and there is camerawork here that is utterly confident and full of vibrant colors and dynamic action. The actors all do very well, though most of them are merely required to play broad caricatures. Caswell was especially good at portraying her angst without seeming forced. I’m thinking that maybe one day Kahn’s directorial skills will find themselves to the task of a somewhat – dare I say more mature – screenplay. He’s proven he’s cool and talented, but does he have what it takes to take the next step?
But enough of that. This film is really a case of take it or leave it. And in a time where it’s increasingly rare to see something that hasn’t been done a thousand times before, Detention, paradoxically enough, is more than the sum of its parts, and that makes it a keeper.
Review by Michael Berlind