The motley crew.
Detention is just this side of brilliant. It would probably be surpassing brilliant if it weren’t a movie that only people aged 20-30 could ever possibly understand let alone enjoy. I mean, this shit is going to lose people in the kinetic and awesome credits sequence alone. Most of the people in that bracket aren’t pop-culture aware/sensitive/whatever to really follow all the quips, criticisms, gags, and references. They’re going to think Detention is overly clever by way of ADHD and since that’s pretty much how Joseph Kahn (director of Torque and those paintball episodes of Community) intended it, I don’t feel like I’m going out on a limb to say that Detention is a film that requires a certain type of taste. It’s not very accessible, if you haven’t figured that out by now, unless you’re a 20-30 year old person who is at least interested in trends and culture, specifically framed by youth from 1992 to 2012. You kind of have to have lived through the period and retained the right mix of loathing and nostalgia for it. I dunno if it’s possible to hold not liking this against anyone as I’m not sure this kind of taste is something people should even have. It definitely make Detention work if you, like me, (un)fortunately have it, though.
Not that Detention is a sentimentally nostalgic movie. There is definitely a lot of affection for the 80′s (John Hughes style), 90′s (90% of the rest) and the aughts (this movie gets contemporary teens), but most of it is hilariously specific (like Mmmbop by Hanson, which gets its own credit). In general, though, the movie is making fun of sentimentality especially where it concerns what we take away from high school, how we frame it while it’s happening, and the kind of people it molds us into even if our back stories are way beyond the stereotypical.
Even turbobully Billy Nolan has a weird and interesting tale.
Detention is never interested in being a garden variety movie. In fact, suspension of disbelief isn’t even a valid reaction here as the movie continuously goes out of its way to remind you that yes, you are watching a movie. How it does this is always fun and often exciting, and at times borderline genius (the movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie, etc sequence near the end). What makes this work, even as things come at you faster than a dozen tabbed videos, blogs, and twitter feeds, is that everything is being sent up. Detention spares nothing and no one from its affectionate scorn. The main character, Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell) is subject to every kind of indignity you can imagine, mostly self-inflicted too. She’s a tedious character type but there are little hints about who she is beneath the role she fits into. She is the calmest of all the characters, too, in terms of the detail and sheer bonkers fucking shit that gets thrown in for everyone else. Another character, for example, spent their childhood with a working television set permanently affixed to their hand. Still another did a mind-body switch with her mother and gives birth to herself. In its series of character-based vignettes revealing all this crazy back story, nothing is too bizarre.
Since the plot is threaded into the superstructure of the movie, it is maybe one of the least important elements. Someone is dressing up as horror movie villain Cinderhella and killing people in Grizzly Lake. This is a classic set up for the teen slasher that is one ingredient in this movie’s almost preposterous blend of genres. The next is the teen coming of age shit, which happens naturally out of relationships these characters already have, the details of which sort themselves out as the movie needs them to. After that, you get time travel/Freaky Friday shit, some heady mix of E.T. and The Fly with a little more Cronenberg thrown in for fun, and then there’s the time traveling stuffed bear from the Planet Starclaw. To say that this movie will surprise you constantly with just how much crazy it pulls out of its vintage messenger bag is not saying enough. The only other movie that comes close in recent years, and is actually a nice companion piece to this, is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World which is actually a far less ambitious film overall.
As the slasher thing happens, Riley Jones pines after eminently cool Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) who is liked by everyone except Principal Verge (Dane Cook being awesome for a change) and Billy Nolan (Parker Bagley). Billy is your standard jock, or so it seems, and he also likes Ione (Spencer Locke) the absurdly 90′s obsessed cheerleader who likes Clapton. Sander Sanderson (Aaron David Johnson) is the witty but sleazy nerd who thinks arithmetic = him and Riley hooking up. On the sidelines are Gord the Canadian exchange student (funniest character in the movie from concept to execution), Toshiba the tech wiz, and the goth girl he likes Mimi (Tiffany Boone). Then there’s Elliott Fink (Walter Perez) playing a joke on Donnie Darko that is almost too subtle to work.
As the teen drama unfolds, so too does a random plot to kill everybody in Grizzly Lake before they’re even born. That’s how the time travel thing comes, literally, full circle. Verge gives everybody who may have been involved with the deaths a Saturday detention and then leaves them to sort out who the killer is amongst themselves. This is the kind of “plotting” that this movie does and it does it with the bravado of a guy who dresses like Clapton Davis.
The big cheat of Detention is that the characters can be annoying as long as they are recognizable.
Ultimately, all this cleverness could have easily been serving itself. That would have left Detention as an empty mess. As it is, the movie is way more interested in having and making fun than it is about saying something. This feels totally appropriate for the generation it is about, too.
This is the kind of movie where it’s easier to list off your favorite moments than it is to criticize narrative strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think Detention at all attempts to fit into a traditional narrative mode so such an exercise would be pointless. There may be other places to criticize it but I’m not sure where without going after the concepts or structure themselves, something I won’t do because I think that’s there this movie really shines. I mean, having a problem with something conceptually is usually on the audience, not the something. I don’t know if you can really fault Detention for its execution. It seems perfect to me. Consistent conceptually and thematically: it’s supposed to be a shotgun blast of ideas, jokes, and references. It’s supposed to feel like that image I gave before: a bunch of tabs opened up on a browser, all at once. It’s ADHD the movie, for better or worse.
So I guess it’s with caution that I recommend this one. I think it’s brilliant, more or less, but your mileage will likely vary. This is so much a movie for the generation of now that it’s going to have weird effects. Some people are going to reflexively hate it because they don’t believe what it says about them, they don’t want to be made fun of. Some will hate it because it’s about youth they find tedious and awful. Some will latch onto it because it says all the things about our generation that they believe anyway, and they won’t see the affection so much as the mockery. All of that makes complete sense to me even as someone who really likes and appreciates this movie after two viewings.
All in all, there’s not really anything else quite like Detention.
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