Attempting a plot synopsis of Joseph Kahn’s 2011 high school movie Detention makes me feel like a chimpanzee trying to comprehend quantum physics. On paper the story seems a standard collection of meta teen-slash-horror movie cliches. Riley (Shanley Caswel) is a smart but uncool girl with a crush on her best friend Clapton (Josh Hutcherson). But Clapton is trying to be in with the in-crowd and has the hots for Riley’s former bestie, the uber-cheerleader Ione (Spencer Locke). Meanwhile, Riley’s current best bud Sander (Aaron David Johnson), a wisecracking geeky virgin, desires Riley. A masked maniac is stalking the students dressed as the lead character from a series of lame horror films and seems to have developed an obsession with Riley. Principle Verge (a Dane Cook cameo) suspects them all as potential teen killers and outs them in detention. Stuck in the school library, will the gang succeed in revealing the killer’s identity? It’s The Breakfast Club meets Scream, but really this is just a vague framework for director Kahn and co-writer Mark Palermo to cram full of pop culture references (laid on so thick it takes at least three viewings to catch maybe 50% of them), before morphing the film into a science fiction direction that is migraine inducing if you try to think about it. My advice, just go with it. What you have to know is that this is the ultimate meta high school/slasher/sci-fi teen movie. A glow stick waving, MDMA chugging cousin to the too cool for school goth kid Donnie Darko (a sad tale that Donnie, graduated and went to college where he fell in with a bad crowd and turned in to Southland Tales). Khan is a jobbing pop promo and advertising director who made his feature debut with the much derided motorcycle action flick Torque in 2004 (he isn’t above taking a self-reflexive pop at his earlier film) and then found getting a second film made on his own terms a struggle. So he decided to take his pop promo riches and finance Detention himself (no doubt calling in some favours to lessen the truly frightening music rights clearances required for a film with wall to wall pop music references woven throughout). The resulting film may have left him broke, but if there is any justice it should guarantee another gig. Shot digitally by DP Christopher Probst this is a gorgeous film. The opening credits sequence alone is a finely crafted thing of beauty, with the camera whipping around and ‘finding’ the credits woven into the film’s set dressing. Kahn is at least as fond of lens flare as JJ Abrams, each frame erupts with the stuff like desert blossom after a heavy rainfall. The young cast (including Hutcherson now best known for The Hunger Games) performs admirably rattling off technically difficult dialogue as full of hip teen jargon as Heathers was in the late eighties. Where Kahn really scores is in his integration of social media into the visual language and texture of the film. In what is already become a screen grammar standard txts appear onscreen. Characters often converse whilst holding digital conversations simultaneously so there are simultaneous and often contradictory concurrent dialogues. There really is so much information on screen at any moment that the only way to deal with it is to let it wash over you, and go back and unpick it on repeat viewings. It could make you feel very old. Due to the time and effort it takes to complete a film and bring it out to the wider world, film often feels just behind the cultural zeitgeist, but Kahn’s film (to paraphrase rock bank Against Me) still like the crest of a new wave several years after release. Detention is a dazzling meta movie that manages to feel post everything. It’s frankly criminal that the dismal Scream 4 was allowed to dribble out across a wide theatrical release when this incredible movie was locked away in a dungeon and shoved out on DVD (its now on Netflix so there’s no excuse).
This review first appeared on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/