Review: Detention (2011)

Posted on June 19, 2012 by UK Editor

Review by Dustin Hall

This past week, I had an opportunity to watch the long-delayed comedy/horror film Detention with the Director, Joseph Kahn (Torque) and some of the cast in attendance. I can’t say the movie was exactly a roaring success, but the discussion that followed was interesting, and I can say that Detention is a unique film that I have a certain appreciation for.

Detention is a film that is, more or less, just about High School, and through the course of the film, the school and its student body are tossed about between numerous different filmic plot points from many different genres. The core story focuses on Riley (Shanley Caswell), a young, dorky, vegan student with her leg stuck in a cast and her social life stuck in park. After a failed suicide attempt, she is stalked by a copy-cat killer who, much like in Scream, models their attacks after horror movies, in this case the in-movie franchise Cinderhella. While trying to discover the identity of Cinderhella, she also crosses paths with a genetically altered football player, a girl with a Parent Trap case of identity theft, a boy who has spent the last two decades in detention, extraterrestrials, and a time-traveler of the Ursidae persuasion.

Admidst all of this chaos, the jokes come fast and furious, many of them perhaps too quick to track without re-watching the film. There’s plenty of blood, zany characters galore, and enough 90′s gags to fill a VH1 special. Oh, and Dane Cook is in there too.

I took a friend, and their response? “I can’t leave the theater fast enough.”

So, while that particular viewer actually left wanting to deal the film, were it possible, bodily harm, and I myself wasn’t really satisfied by it, the following discussion with some of the creators was very illuminating.

You see, and I say this often on this site, I tend to try to look at movies objectively as taste is subjective, and see if the creators were able to accomplish what they wanted to with the movie. If it turned out according to the vision, then I have a hard time really bashing the film, as someone out there will like it. Many times, films are a soulless, slap-dash thing given to the money-churning machine. Not so with Detention. Khan set out to make a very specific movie that was dear to his heart and, at great personal expense, did so.

So, in one regard the film is a rousing success. Khan himself came out to say that he wanted to make a horror movie ‘for the kids.’ And indeed he did. All of the kids in their early 20′s in the theater were generally laughing non-stop and seemed to really dig everything. Much like Edgar Wright did with Scott Pilgrim, he’s kept in mind the quick minds and tastes of the current generation, packing every shot with incredible amounts of sight-gags, text, and visual data. He’s done so hoping to continually amuse the fast-thinking, iphone toting generation, as well as give reason for film-goers to rewatch the film at home on blu-ray, trying to catch it all. Because of this, and because of how many jokes there are and how rapidly they come, you can imagine there are quite a few stinkers in there. For every line that soars (everything delivered by the ‘roid rage Football coach) there’s another one that just seems to tank (movie-buff cops debunking the cinema qualities of the case. Good idea, falls flat).

The rapid and bizarre nature of a lot of the jokes makes the movie feel very random. There’s a lot of them just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. It takes a long time for anything in the film to make connections, and because of that a lot of viewers will see the movie as a disjointed pile of nonsense, like an Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode stretched over ninety minutes.

But, listening to Khan, you can tell that he knew exactly where his film was going and who it was made for. He is painfully aware of the differences in audience tastes that is developing between generations, and also the differences in viewing habits between the theater age and the digital age, as well as the cyclical nature of fads. The 90′s seem old and retro and like a totally different world to today’s youth, and as such there are plenty of 90′s gags, many of them dealing with not only pop, but also the lack of cellphones and ‘net technology in those days, and how strange it makes that world seem to people who didn’t live in it.

So, again, in entertaining a very young audience, it succeeds. I do feel like, though the taste factor isn’t determined by age alone, there will be a niche audience that really loves Detention, and they will skew very young. However, despite efforts to the contrary, the film fails to establish its characters as much more than the butts of an endless torrent of jokes. Even with flashes of added back-story, they seem hollow, and this will keep audiences from finding a lasting endearment with the film. Khan had some very bold character ideas in mind here, and they are on the film, but they only come across after listening to him or his DVD commentary, and so in that regard Detention fails.

According to Khan, Detention was inspired by the shootings at Columbine, and the fascinating notion that those shooters had stable families, were economically sound, had friends and girlfriends; so why did they snap? His belief is that it was because of a lack of empathy on the behalf of the shooters, the failure to see the world from any bubble other than their own and so, as such, it seemed like every obstacle to them was a personal slight, and that the world was against them. His villain very much fits this mindset, while all the rest of the characters begin by fitting one of many High School stereotypes and then eventually breaking their mold, their lives being more complex than initially believed, and often of an unpredictable genre.

This is a respectable idea, but any gravity it would have carried is really drowned by just how extraordinarily silly everything else is. Though Khan had some lofty ambitions here, really they aren’t adequately met, and so the whole film just has to play for laughs. The actors do well in their roles, be it Josh Hutcherson’s (Hunger Games) hipster skateboarder, Spencer Locke’s (Resident Evil franchise) cheerleader, or, yes, even Dane Cook, but they can’t propel forth themes that are just a little too subtle.

It’s a mixed bag of a film, one I would rate 50/50. It will certainly find a small niche of fans who will love it to death and watch it all the time. Also, it has a great 90′s soundtrack, which Khan gathered at tremendous cost. But, it will certainly never gather a wide audience, and it has ideas that are bigger than their britches, so to speak. I imagine it goes over as well with most audiences as something like Heathers would have to audiences from the 50′s.

Still, props to Khan and crew for getting something so unusual and close to the vest created. Respect.

Detention is currently on a very limited release, touring select US cities. A Region 2 DVD release is set for August 27th, from Sony Home Entertainment.