SIFF 2011: DETENTION Review

I anticipate a lot of people will intensely dislike Detention, the John Huges mixed with John Carpenter hyper-aware, so post-modern-it's-pre-future movie written and directed by Joseph Kahn. The movie is a ultra-kinetic, fast-talking, self-referential sci-fi comedy slasher film set in a high school populated entirely and intentionally by fast-talking character types, conscious that they're trapped in multiple genres and possibly doomed to death. On paper, I could very easily see it as a mess of elements that simply don't work. Some of the elements don't in fact, actually work, but for its flaws, Detention is a terribly funny movie and it's easy to get wrapped up in its weird energy.

The movie follows a group of teens in the community of Grizzly Lake being stalked by a serial killer taking his or her schtick from a film slasher called Cinderella Cinderhella, a prom themed murderess who dispatches her prey with Saw-style devices while her "real"-world counterpart is content to take out the pretty people with an axe. One of Cindehella's potential victims is the unpopular Riley (Shanley Caswell), the clumsy, outspoken, suicidal vegan outcast who can't seem to convince her classmates that she's a potential victim--they don't think she's frankly pretty enough or rich enough for a killer's attention. Riley also pines for cool skater kid Clapton (Josh Hutcherson) who's into 90's obsessed cheerleader Ione (Spencer Locke), who seems to want nothing more than for Clapton to beat up her ex boyfriend Billy (Parker Bagley) who has a deep, dark weird secret that causes his semen to glow in the dark.

We're introduced to these characters through numerous cutaways to their backstory using a device that should have become tiring but Kahn and co-writer Mark Palermo's script injects each of these asides with increasingly bizarre points that I couldn't help but love each one.Allow me to spoil one and gauge for yourself if this movie is on your wavelength: after he begins vomiting acid on the football field, Billy explains that his blood is actually spliced with fly DNA. This leads to a brief flashback where we learn that during a childhood venture into the woods, Billy's hand was warped and mutated by some kind of glowing object. Returning home, his father--a drunken bully--forces him to cover the hand with a small portable TV. Some time later, in his teens, Billy draws his hand from the TV, completely restored, but his father. But his father is still a jerk.

Perhaps you had to be there, I think.

Much of what makes the movie work is its casting of young actors who can reasonably handle the rapid-fire delivery the script demands of them without seeming to wink at the camera. I think Detention succeeds here if not knocking this particular element out of the park. I was impressed at Dane Cook (of all people) as the bitter principal whose solution to a series of murders is to confine potential suspects in detention until one of them fesses up. His role calls for him to be at once disappointed with and disgusted by his young charges, and Cook nails the role of a man who realizes that he's wasted his life and--surrounded by teens with ample opportunities--is getting fed up looking forward to the years ahead.

I think this could best be described as a Twitter movie: it's like following several unconnected streams in discrete, fast-paced bits. It's all about being fast and clever and grabbing your attention from second to second with all of these disparate pieces. That they all come together in a resolution that works in the end is just a bonus. There's a focus on referencing the 90's that almost borders on obsessive (until the plot reassures you that there's a reason for it). Having been a teen in the 90's I wasn't eager to revisit them, but Detention reminded me that bits of it weren't so weird and generally off-putting. Maybe it was just me.

This is Kahn's second feature after 2004's mostly-lambasted Torque. That was not an especially good movie but it was so confident in its ridiculousness including fights atop bikes and races against projectiles that, as with Detention, I couldn't help myself. I think we need more knowing ridiculousness in movies. Not knowing badness or shoddiness, simply a willingness by filmmakers to go all the way beyond 11 when telling certain types of stories. Why hold back? You may only get the one movie.

Detention screened as part of the 37th annual Seattle International Film Festival. You can find more details at the SIFF site.

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