What kind of movie is “Detention?”
In this film, a young actor named Parker Bagley plays Billy Nolan, a high school jock who hides the truth from friends and enemies about his own half-fly DNA. He vomits acid and his wings spring up at inopportune moments. Billy's spent a large portion of his childhood trying to hide his alien mutation by wearing a giant television set over his hand. At the midway point of the film, we realize Billy Nolan is only a supporting character, and his fate is, in many ways, irrelevant to the resolution of the film.
So yes, it’s that kind of movie. Or it’s the kind of movie that features a time-traveling bear. Or a movie that features a crucial moment where a character performs the “Dirty Dancing” choreography to a remix of “MmmBop.” It’s also a film where we realize one of the characters has Freaky Friday’d their way into their mother’s body and vice versa. Not to mention a movie where a child is capable of building a universe-destroying bomb in a high school science class.
In case you hadn’t figured it out, “Detention” is impossible to summarize. Director Joseph Kahn has a structure in place, so the film has a very loose sense of interior logic, but he has allowed for digressions like the ones mentioned. Still, in each five minutes, the premise of “Detention” finds itself mutating. You can spend a lifetime seeing films, consuming the garbage culture on MTV that this film lampoons in the process, and you still won’t be able to see what’s coming next in “Detention.”
And now, an attempt to summarize what is essentially a film-long non sequitur: Clapton (Josh Hutcherson) is a well-liked kid trying to graduate high school while courting the lead cheerleader and trying to avoid the fists of Billy Nolan. And Riley (Shanley Caswell) is just trying to navigate the teen girl minefield, watching friendships evaporate, as she gets hell for failing to follow the popular trends and stay abreast of popular culture. Popular culture, of course, being the mercurial engine this film uses as plot fuel.
Kahn and his co-writer Mark Palermo are working with a double-edged sword in “Detention.” The sheer volume of incidence is a mockery of the high school belief that everything that happens to you as a young person quite literally feels like the end of the world -- This results in Kahn showcasing the outlandishness of plot developments, only to deflate them with a joke, suggesting that not only should you not take any of “Detention” seriously, but that the characters are also pawns in a much bigger game. The temptation is to throw your hands in the air and just say, “Oh, whatever,” and you feel like the film actively encourages that attitude.
“Detention” is also powered almost entirely by teen dialogue referencing nineties pop culture. While this furthers the twenty-year nostalgia theory, we learn that, through time travel shenanigans, the film seems to make an argument that the world may have been destroyed in the nineties, and the irrelevant pop culture of the era (the queasy stand-in for real culture) was the final death twitch. One of the few exceptions seems to be “Cinderhella,” a horror film franchise within “Detention” seemingly based on the thoughtless “morality” of the “Saw” series. “Cinderhella” serves as inspiration for a killer who stalks the high school, murdering kids in a similar fashion. The need for popularity and post-graduate success gives these kids nightmares. The “Cinderhella” impersonator makes them buy tickets to see “Cinderhella 2.”
For better or for worse, “Detention” almost feels too hyperactive to be a movie. Kahn's visual motif allows for slick, meticulous surfaces with a commercial sheen. Every shiny, exuberant thirty seconds of this film could play as a commercial, as if Kahn were desperate to sell us something. Which is amusing, in that it adds to the finger-quotation vibe of the film, with sarcasm the default reaction of the characters. Of course, the aesthetic is distancing, allowing for “Detention” to be a processed rush of information, ostensibly geared towards the attention spans of today’s teenagers. Theoretically, this is a movie that a teen can process while texting, surfing the web and talking on the phone, according to what Kahn told our Q+A afterwards. It’s also a film that you can walk out on, return fifteen minutes later, and miss nothing. But, in a way, you’d be missing everything. [C+]
This is a reprint of our review from SXSW in 2011.