Written & Directed by Joseph Kahn
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Shanley Caswell, and Dane Cook
MPAA: R – For Bloody Violence, Crude and Sexual Content, Nudity, Language, Some Teen Drinking and Drug Use]
There’s a reason why non-formula storytelling structure is hardly attempted. Keeping it to a formula means you don’t run the risk of alienating the viewer and it makes sure that your story is, at the very least, coherent. And while many of the greatest films are great because while they adhere to a formula the writing is so good that it transcends that formula, many other great movies break the formula and provide for an original experience.
While I like to bring up 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life constantly on my reviews, a better example in this case would have to be Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York. Synecdoche New York is the kind of movie that purposefully creates a new way of telling its story in the form of a large theater in which a play-director creates a full re-enactment of his own life, to the point that life itself is engulfed in his mammoth magnum opus and starts colliding with his art. This new storytelling method could alienate viewers who aren’t open to its original approach, but I personally cry foul at the film’s detractors because as hard-to-grasp as it is on a structural level, it was so emotionally complex and thematically beautiful that I was able to go along for the crazy ride, leading to an emotional and tragic climax that lead to my lips quivering in total sadness.
Why do I bring this up? Because I started to notice that while unconventional storytelling structure is rarely tried, in the few moments when it is tried it usually leads to actually very good films, sometimes even masterpieces; probably because the types of people who do bring up these unconventional methods dreamed them up because they were smart people to begin with. Meanwhile the few moments when it doesn’t work are actually surprisingly very rare, because most untalented people just stick to trite like the Total Recall remake (Seriously, this may sound kinda dickish, but thank god it’s bombing at the box-office).
Detention, however, is that rarity. It has such a wholly original storytelling method that I’ve never seen before in a movie, let alone thought was even possible, and brings it to us at its most unadultered form. It is also a total mess. A confounding, genre-bending, dizzyingly fast-paced smorgasboard of ideas that never really comes together. Despite that fact, it’s actually not as terrible as it could’ve been, and there is a lot to admire here; but it still doesn’t change the fact that this is essentially Cabin in the Woods without the tight screenplay and thematic focus.
Detention is essentially the basic set-up of The Breakfast Club crossed with the stylistic tendencies of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World crossed with the self-referential brand of horror/comedy from Scream with a dash of Cabin in the Woods‘s meta-text.
The basic hook is that a group of different high-schoolers’ lives intersect and finally converge when they’re forced into Saturday detention together. Except whereas The Breakfast Club‘s characters were all embodiments of different high school stereotypes, all of the characters in Detention are embodiments of different teen-movie characters and personalities.
One guy (Josh Hutcherson) is a cool, tough but still misunderstood and bullied outcast going through a love-triangle with a cheerleader (Spencer Locke) who may or may not be going through a Freaky Friday style body-switching movie and an outcast girl (Shanley Caswell) who is going through a Scream 2 style self-referential slasher film. Meanwhile, there are characters that are directly lifted off of Heathers, Back to the Future, Donnie Darko, and even Spider-Man (but by way of Seth Brundle, in this movie). Each of these movies are distilled into their own different subplots which all come together and essentially morph into a single narrative that tasks the kids with saving the world.
If this all sounds like a complete and utter mess, here’s a hint: It totally is. It isn’t really so much a story than it is a whole set of stories you’ve seen before in various different teen movies but threaded together into a sort of cinematic vomit: Everything is chewed up and digested together, but it comes out looking like an ugly, unrecognizable mess in which all of those digested elements are all smothered in the director’s own indulgence, or in the case of this tortured analogy, bodily fluids.
Because the movie is just a mash-up of completely different genres and tones, there’s absolutely zero focus. That may be the point, but that doesn’t make it any better as a film. There’s no rulebook on how a film should work and different things work for different films, but one thing that every good film has is a focus of some sort, whether it’s of an idea, a character’s mindset, an emotion, or even just the overall tone. Detention, meanwhile, like most mash-ups, doesn’t have something for the viewer to cling to, and as a result, everything fails to resonate. It’s too busy referencing things and tries way, way, way too hard at being clever just for cleverness’s sake to actually make light of its own main thematic conceit (Which we’ll get to in a bit).
Of course, it doesn’t help that the pacing is like a 7-year-old boy jacked up on pop-rocks, cartoons, and his own ADD. One review from The Hollywood Reporter said of the pace that it “dares anyone above 25 to keep up”. Well I’m 18, and even I couldn’t keep up with this movie. Just when you think you have a grasp of what the movie could be about, or what one character could possibly represent, it jumps to a new scene that introduces a new idea that doesn’t mesh with everything we’ve seen prior to it.
It’s impossible to get a good sense of what’s going on. Even in the similarly stylized and paced Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, we could still keep up because the plot was relatively simple, allowing the viewer to just revel in the rapid-fire sight gags and visual flair, while at the same time appreciate a surprisingly thoughtful study at relationships that had heart, emotion, and most importantly, a soul. In Detention, because there’s so much going on at once, we’re never able to take a breath and make sense of the way it melds together its myriad of genres, and as a result, it’s also impossible to just watch it as a brainless exercise and just go along for the ride, because when a new element is introduced, instead of going with it, you’ll just be thinking “What just happened? When was that established?”
Despite all these very major flaws, however, it’s not as terrible as a film like this could’ve been. While the movie definitely lost me by the time Act III rolled in, there was never a moment where I was bored. I wouldn’t say I was entertained, either, but through every minute of the movie I was always fascinated to see what crazy, weird direction it would go next.
Most of this has to do with the young cast’s appeal, who is able to deliver the whiplash dialogue with charisma and charm, with a special mention going to Shanley Caswell as Riley, the girl in the Scream knock-off, who comes across as the one character who actually has character and a real personality. She and the rest of the cast deliver each line as if they understand what the hell is going on, which is important when you’re in a movie that makes less sense than Eraserhead and Donnie Darko combined.
There are only two bad apples in the cast, and ironically, they’re both the only recognizable stars. First is Josh Hutcherson, who you may remember as the bland love-interest in this year’s The Hunger Games adaptation. Here, he’s equally bland as both a character and a love-interest, especially when compared next to the rest of the cast. But he at least fares better than Dane Cook as the principal of the school, who, in Dane Cook fashion, is completely unfunny in absolutely every single scene he’s in. Other than those two, the rest of the cast does a very admirable job bringing the hard-to-understand material to life.
Plus, the movie is very slickly made. The director and co-writer is Joseph Kahn, a commercial/music video director who is very respected in the movie-blog/critic community thanks to his very opinionated twitter account, despite the fact that he’s made only one movie, which is the kinda intentionally bad yet hilariously ridiculous action flick Torque. While Detention is noticeably low-budget, it still looks just as glossy as any studio film save for the horrendous CG. While this isn’t surprising considering Kahn mainly works in the music-video department, he at the very least keep the whole film from looking cheap…most of the time.
And as unfocused as the movie is, it strangely has its own strange identity. I honestly can’t really explain how it does that other than the fact that there’s really nothing else like this movie. One of my mantras has always been that flawed ambition almost always beats out serviceably-made pap, and this certainly fits the bill of flawed ambition, even though its certainly more flawed than most of the ambitious movies released this year. So while I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, it’s worth a go if you want to see something that’s like nothing else on the market.
But the main reason why I can commend what the movie is trying to do is that it does have some substance. Much like how Cabin in the Woods used its blending of genres to comment on the process of storytelling, Detention slyly creates a bizarro version of our own world in which each character is literally defined by the pop culture surrounding them, hence how each character represents a different movie/movie archetype. This creates a surprisingly thoughtful message about how pop-culture can be used as a tool to not only shape a generation, but also taint it, dumb it down, or even destroy it.
Of course, this thematic conceit is lost in the kerfuffle of ideas and pacing issues, but it’s something to think about nonetheless.
Final Verdict: Overall, Detention is a fascinating failure of a movie. It doesn’t quite work as a whole, but there are elements that do, and I can’t help but admire a movie that’s this original and unlike anything else. The movie is confidently directed with a talented cast of young actors making the material more fun then it should be, plus it does have its own original and surprisingly thoughtful commentary on pop culture. But for all its myriad ideas, it’s unfortunately let down by its own self-indulgence, overly obscure references, annoying too-cool-for-film-school attitude towards conventional story structure, and complete disregard for the viewer’s ability to keep up with it all. Only recommended if you’re interested enough to see something different, flaws and all.