Our Monday night movie club has found its first modern classic. Every Monday night, a group of my friends and I congregate to watch a film and talk rubbish, and we’ve got a rota system for the film pick. My last pick was the thoroughly miserable “Witchery”, so all credit for this goes to my friend Hado – and the first question that was asked after the credits rolled was “why is this not better known?”
It seems director Joseph Kahn is doomed to make amazing movies that just don’t do terribly well. He’s also responsible for “Torque”, the “Fast and Furious” ripoff / parody which I absolutely loved, and the “Power/Rangers” bootleg film; but his day job is being a pop music video director. He won pretty much everything at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards and is presumably much happier being Taylor Swift’s go-to guy than he is trying to get absolutely bonkers genre parodies like this off the ground.
What “Detention” is, is the craziest bits from every high school movie you’ve ever seen, with ideas that could fill entire run times just casually dropped in for ten minutes or so. Taylor Fisher, head cheerleader, starts off with a monologue to camera, and she’s a delightful bitch – which, to her, stands for “beauty, intelligence, talent, charisma, Hoobastank.” But don’t get too attached, because a serial killer dressed as movie villain “CinderHella” offs her sharpish.
The heroine, who just gives us a voiceover, is Riley (Shanley Caswell), and she’s a bit of a loser – waking up covered in fries and ketchup, broken ankle, and former best friends with Ione, another cheerleader who turned a bit self-absorbed a few months previously and pursued the boy Riley was into, Clapton (Josh Hutcherson, who got hired for “The Hunger Games” around the time this was being made, and is also one of the executive producers). Riley’s got the Duckie-style pining male friend, there’s Billy the psychotic jock, and Dane Cook as the Principal. Everyone’s basically waiting round to graduate – all the fun stuff of high school seems to be over barring the prom, and these kids want to be getting on with the next stage of their lives.
Trying to pin down the plot is a tricky one, because it gleefully picks up and discards so many ideas. It’s The Breakfast Club…for about five minutes. Real Genius. Heathers. Three O’Clock High. The Matrix. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The Fly. Freaky Friday. Can’t Hardly Wait. Back To The Future. Of course, there’s “Scream”, but they mock the idea that this is anything like “Scream” explicitly. There’s a ton of different visual styles, too, with onscreen text worked into the fabric of things and used by the characters on several different occasions. To say it moves fast is pretty much an understatement. They casually throw in a brilliant film-within-a-film-within-a-film-within-a-film segment too, and make it work in the context of what’s going on.
And then there’s the references. Why is Ione so obsessed with 1992? But it’s a fun riposte to the idea of the mid-80s being the ultimate touchstone for high school movies, because these characters would’ve all been born in the 90s, so 80s nostalgia would’ve made no sense. The actual detention (which doesn’t come til after the halfway point) introduces them to the guy who’s been on detention there for almost 20 years, the equation he’s been carving into his desk that entire time, and the time travel machine that one of the other students was building inside the giant grizzly bear that stands in the foyer of the school.
I know it’s an odd thing to say about a time travel / slasher / high school comedy which breaks the fourth wall all over the place, but the characters all feel real, and lived-in. Hutcherson is obviously great, but so is everyone else, from top to bottom (even the guy credited as “Hipster Thief”, with two or three lines, works some magic). Dane Cook, as dull and bro-y a standup comedian as you’ll ever see, is good as the resentful Principal – and he also appeared in “Torque”, so he and Kahn must get on. Perhaps the weakest link is Gord the Canadian, but then maybe I’m just bummed out he won a debate on vegetarianism by arguing for eating baby animals due to them not having had much life to enjoy.
Why should you, as someone who perhaps isn’t as obsessed with old high school movies as I am, like this? Well, first is the feminist strand of the plot. Riley is complex in a way few female lead characters manage – funny, awkward, smart and beautiful (her realisation that she’s hot enough to be a slasher movie victim is a great bit of business). She and Ione dominate the plot, and the male sidekick is the reward for the success of her plan, in a clever reversal of how this normally plays out. When people lie about how 80s slasher Final Girls show that those dumb movies are feminist, this is what you should show them.
There’s also the way it strips the veneer from certain character archetypes, showing them more how they’d be in real life. The “Duckie from Pretty In Pink” type who pines for the lead is a weird, needy, psychopath-in-waiting; and the angry jock is shunned by almost everyone (okay, he’s also got fly DNA thanks to a meteor he touched as a kid, but that’s by the by).
I think the thing I’m happiest about, and you will be too, is how tightly it works as a movie. Hiding the fact you’re laying pipe for the final act is one of the trickiest things you can do, and making it funny is even harder, yet “Detention” does it effortlessly, so much so that when the payoffs come you’re totally not expecting it. Bad movies with a time-travel element might as well have arrows pointing to the stuff which will come in handy later, yet Kahn is clever enough to avoid that, and he’s also given us a plot which absolutely rips along . It’s an extremely smart film with nary a dropped thread, and it masquerades as part dumb horror-comedy, part-parody of those same genres.
I loved “Torque”, but I felt it was slightly held back by the studio wanting an actual “The Fast And The Furious” clone and Kahn wanting to parody those genres; “Detention” was largely funded by Kahn himself, so it has none of the same problems. Full-on Joseph Kahn is a joy to behold, and I know he’s probably making decent money with music videos and adverts these days, but I’d love to see him given more opportunities to make movies like this. I think “Detention” compares extremely favourably to “Scott Pilgrim vs The World”, released the same year this was filmed: Edgar Wright’s direction is almost pedestrian compared to Kahn’s, and all Pilgrim’s wacky on-screen graphics and stylistic tics were just covering up a fairly standard plot. This is anything but standard.
Rating: thumbs up