It will take you about five minutes to decide if you hate Detention. Director Joseph Kahn does not fuck around, and he begins the film with a heavily stylized, massively meta and lightning-paced sequence. But if you’re like me and you’re constantly looking for something fresh, invigorating and risky at the movies, the opening five minutes of Detention are going to make you lean back into your seat with a big ass grin on your face.
Detention is a film that is, to me, undeniable. I think it’s possible to dislike a film of this type - everybody has different tastes - but there’s no way to deny that what Kahn is doing here is exploring the next stage of pop filmmaking, that he’s making a film completely in tune with the world around us. It’s a movie of and about recycled culture, it’s a movie that jumps from idea to idea with the speed of a teen clicking browser tabs, and it’s a movie that is deceptively self-aware. It’s also funny and often exciting and always looks incredible.
Summing up the plot of Detention feels like an impossible task. Not because you can’t sum up the plot, but because the plot of the film is in many ways about the film itself. Entirely self-reflexive and utterly self-critiquing, Detention is less about the story mechanics and more about a whirlwind examination, critique and appreciation for every single high school movie made in the last thirty years. But Kahn (and screenwriter Mark Palermo) aren’t just ticking off references. This isn’t a movie about the nods and the winks. In many ways Detention is an academic dissertation on the meaning and cultural impact of teen movies, presented in the form of a teen movie.
But before you begin thinking the film itself is dry or scholarly, keep in mind this is from the same man who made Torque. Kahn wouldn’t know how to be boring on film. In fact the most obvious critique of Detention is that it’s exhausting - Kahn keeps the energy up, unflagging, until the final minutes. The magpie stylings of the plot allows Detention to keep rejuvenating itself, and so it never stands still. By the time the third act comes, with its bizarre melding of Freaky Friday and Donnie Darko into a time travel paradox that threatens to destroy the world (all growing out of a slasher mystery, mind you), you will be winded from the sheer kinetic filmmaking, as well as the tsunami of concepts, references, and ideas.
The film that Detention most reminds me of is Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Both movies stand at the vanguard of filmmaking, looking forward to a style of cinema that is incredibly fast paced, that is very culturally self-aware and that is, at its heart, joyful. There’s a love of cinema in Scott Pilgrim and in Detention that’s exhilirating; Kahn and Wright are both filmmakers who just love what they’re doing and it shows. And Wright and Kahn understand the way people process information these days, and they’re not afraid of talking to audiences at a rate which they will understand.
Detention has some issues; I think that the juggling of the characters as people with the characters as representations of archetypes, concepts and even time periods doesn’t always work. I think the saving grace for the film in this is Shanley Caswell; more than any of the other actors in the film she seems to really GET what’s going on, and is able to perfectly balance the character aspects of her role with the larger archetypal aspects. She’s playing The Misfit, The Socially Conscious Girl, The Nerd, etc, but she’s also playing A PERSON. The entire film rests on Caswell, and I think she’s the one who allows the emotional center of the story to work.
Joseph Kahn obviously doesn’t know how to make movies the Hollywood way. Torque was a terribly misunderstood film (yes, the movie is fully aware of how stupid it is), and it’s a film that’s coming at Hollywood filmmaking from a completely skewed perspective. The same is true of Detention, a movie that could never get through the studio process. I’m glad that Kahn makes his movies his own way (and with his own money, in the case of Detention) because that’s part of what makes them interesting. Again, Detention is undeniable, and even if you end up not liking the film you have to admit that it’s doing very much its own thing. In a filmmaking world that’s made up of copycats and tail chasers, it’s exciting to see a filmmaker stepping out on the ledge and giving it a shot in his own style. And in a world of movies that reference and homage other movies without thought, it’s really exciting to see a movie that tries to process decades of pop culture into two crazy, knowing hours.