SIFF MOVIE: Detention (2011)

First things first: I thought this flick was incredibly entertaining and I laughed out loud more than once while I was watching it.  Director Joseph Kahn (who thoroughly charmed me when he introduced the film at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) last week) is ferociously clever and I’m fascinated by the way his brain works and can’t wait to see what he does next.

That said, this movie is an absolute disaster.  Whew, what a mess!  Not only does the dialogue zoom all over the place, but the story does too, and while that frenetic pacing was clearly part of the film’s deliberately chaotic style, it was so overdone it ultimately made the movie feel more sloppy and unfocused than different and cool.

The plot takes place at a high school and focuses on one girl, a senior named Riley, who’s not quite cool enough to be cool, and not quite dorky enough to be a dork.  She doesn’t really fit in with any group, in other words, and while I think she’d probably tell you haughtily that she didn’t give a rat’s ass about that, her defensive anger would suggest a different story.

Making matters worse, she’s got a crush on her friend Clapton, who appears to only have eyes for the school’s stereotypical head cheerleader character, Ione.

Oh yeah, and also making matters worse?  There’s a killer on the loose, dressed as a sort of prom queen mummy and assumed by the kids to be the incarnation of the star of a fictional slasher series called Cinderhella.  That ain’t good.  (But, it’s also neither here nor there, really,  because Kahn seemed to forget he was making a slasher movie a good 80% of the time — just one of the many, many examples of his complete lack of focus here.)

Even more distracting than the all-over-the-map storyline, though, were the two huge issues I had with the film’s dialogue.  The first is that the characters, especially Riley and Clapton, frequently converse in over-written, too-craftedly-clever, Dawson’s Creek-speak — swapping long, long, precociously astute, complete sentences back and forth rapid-fire.

You know, the way NOBODY talks?

Equally problematic for me, though, was the characters’ incessant use of pop culture references from the 80s and 90s — decades chosen intentionally for one character (there’s a subplot involving time travel — in a giant bear — don’t ask), but which make little sense for the others.  We’re supposed to believe that modern day teens spend time arguing about whether Roadhouse Patrick Swayze could beat up Any Movie Steven Seagal?  Wha’?

The net effect of this film’s chaos was that visually and story-wise, the film seemed directed toward the 15-20 year-olds in the audience (and, indeed, it was a panel of 15-20 year-olds who selected it for the festival, as part of SIFF’s Future Wave project).  But dialogue-wise, it was far more relevant to my generation — people who grew up in the 80s and 90s — which is why only we 30-somethings laughed when, in one scene, a physics teacher circled the word “FLUX” on the chalkboard and then mumbled something about “1.21 gigawatts.”

That’s a good example, though, of the things I DID like about Detention.  Its sense of humor is sharp and crazy and kooky and weird and delightfully subtle at times, and it combines a huge variety of stylistic elements from an equally huge variety of genres — sometimes brilliantly.  (That film-within-a-film-within-a-film montage of clips from previous Cinderhella installments at the end was masterful, for example.  Though, again, did the audience’s 15-20 year-olds really get that scene’s reference to Ron Jeremy?  I have a hard time believing they did.)

Overall, I definitely recommend renting this one just so you can see what it’s like.  I think you’ll enjoy it.  But Kahn said during his introduction that he made this movie without any studio involvement (after the studios ruined his first feature film Torque, he said) so he could have absolute control over every element, and I think a little meddling feedback probably would’ve done the final product some good.

If Kahn can mellow out ever so slightly and not try so damn hard to be clever and cool, I think he could be a truly unique and engaging filmmaker.  But ultimately, I felt Detention was a lot like its main character Riley:  not cool enough to be cool, not dorky enough to be dorky, and not quite fitting in with any (audience) group.

I liked Riley a lot, you see.  But she’s still got some growing up to do.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror, Comedy
Cast:  Josh Hutcherson, Dane Cook, Spencer Locke, Parker Bagley, Richard Brake, Kate Kelton

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