Review: Detention

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This review was originally published in March 2011, we are re-posting it in time for the film’s release.

When I saw Joseph Kahn’s feature debut, Torque, in 2004, it seemed to herald the advent of a new genre, which it didn’t launch (McG’s Charlie’s Angels did) but completely embodied: “non-sequitur” cinema, in which set pieces and bombastic visual style not just circumvent but basically replace conventional storytelling. If there was a both best and worst extension of the glossy, hyperkinetic aesthetic that movies borrowed from music videos, this was it, and God help you if you couldn’t keep up with its candy-coated imagery, lightning-fast editing, and narrative cohesiveness that more resembled an overstuffed plate from the pop-culture equivalent of an all-you-can-eat Vegas buffet than most films’ carefully-chosen, multi-course meal.

What was most interesting about Kahn’s technique is that it seemed impossible to critique with much more nuance than either “totally amazing” or “freaking awful.” And some six years later, his follow-up is only marginally easier to evaluate: a fruit smoothie comprised of teen comedies, horror flicks, music videos, and random pop culture points of reference, Detention is no doubt going to be hard for many to make it through without succumbing to seizures, but it’s a singular experience that deserves more thought than its superficial veneer of influences suggests.

Shanley Caswell plays Riley Jones, a classically angst-filled teenager who finds herself being chased by a masked killer while dodging the seemingly equal slings and arrows of high school social hierarchies. Her childhood friend Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) is the kind of dumb popular kid who gets along with everyone, but their relationship is tested when he starts dating Riley’s former best friend Ione (Spencer Locke), much to the equal consternation of Ione’s jock ex-boyfriend Billy Nolan (Parker Bagley). Meanwhile, Davis’ dorky pal Sander Sanderson (Aaron David Johnson) clumsily tries to woo Riley, ultimately subjecting her to repeated and increasingly devastating public humiliations. When all of them are thrown into detention by Principal Verge (Dane Cook) for being somehow connected to the developing string of murders, Riley and her classmates are forced to confront each other directly in order to figure out who the killer is, and in the process, figure themselves out as well.

Basically, Detention is Scream meets The Breakfast Club, with dollops of Harold & Maude and Heathers on the side, as well as some general body-switching and time travel conventions thrown in as additional metaphors for the vagaries of adolescence. Additionally, Kahn draws on his extensive knowledge of and experience with mainstream pop to create a sonic backdrop that includes music from the Backstreet Boys, Goldfrapp, and a convincing imitation of the music from True Romance (which itself was borrowed from Terence Malick’s Badlands). Suffice it to say the film’s levels of postmodernism go deeper than dreams in Inception – which means that it’s not a particularly scary movie, since audiences even passingly familiar with any of the music or visual texts above should immediately recognize their influence – but since that multi-reference tapestry is quite literally the point, the intensity (or lackthereof) of its horror framework is of little consequence.

That said, am I entirely sure that all of the abandoned avenues of would-be zeitgeist highlights that Kahn references arrive at a single, significant destination? Not really – or at least not when I’m trying to figure out why the high school quarterback is vomiting acid and sprouting wings in the midst of his brawl with his ex’s new boyfriend. But it seems clear (if anything in this film does) that Kahn is trying to capture, if not fully encapsulate, the entirety of the media overload that modern audiences and more specifically, teenagers experience on an ongoing basis. Many of these little lines of dialogue, cues and even character names are probably there for no greater purpose than to give viewers an unexpected moment of recognition; for example, I refuse to believe that “gotta Fled” amounts to more than a reminder of one of the dumbest attempted catchphrases in movie history. But as our culture continues to splinter into smaller and smaller modes of communication, it’s interesting to suggest that they somehow all congeal into something larger and more significant – sort of the lifestyle equivalent of a Truman Show movie poster-style photo mosaic.

Ultimately, like many of its predecessors, especially the Scream films, Joseph Kahn’s film bears too much of the imprint of the material that inspired it to work straightforwardly as its own genre experience. But as an encyclopedic, cinematic sugar rush of the ways in which we reduce the world around us into digestible bits of information, Detention is kind of, well, totally amazing. Mind you, I can’t say that’s an across the board recommendation, because there are probably a few people out there who don’t have much interest in the idea of summing up their experiences in 140-character tweets or internet memes that achieve meaning more through repetition than some more real mode of communication. But if there was a horror movie that could do for the current state of teenagers’ lives what The Social Network did for the last decade of internet culture, Detention would probably be it.