Fair warning: I am about to make Detention sound like either the most awesome or awful movie ever made, although it’s neither. Joseph Kahn’s frantic, deranged mash-up is being billed as a hip teen slasher movie, but it’s more like The Breakfast Club meets Donnie Darko. Meets Prom Night. Meets Back to the Future. With a bit of The Fly, Freaky Friday, and Kill Bill thrown in for good measure. And that doesn’t even begin to do justice to its fidgety, candy-colored aesthetic, which feels like a distillation of every music video and/or commercial ever made. Detention seems expressly designed for cult status and is certain to achieve it.
And it works, for the most part, insofar as a film so determined not to work in all the usual ways can gel. Even though Kahn’s style goes into overdrive from the very first frame, the story itself starts innocently enough, with the obligatory popular girl getting her throat sliced open by a maniac. Then it flashes right to our heroine, suicidal Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), the obligatory not-so-popular girl who may be pretty but is, in the words of a classmate, “not banging enough to be murdered.” As might be expected, Riley is too awkward to score the boy of her dreams, skateboarding teen dream Clapton (The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson, who also executive produced), who has a thing for the even more popular blonde queen Ione (Spencer Locke). Ione dresses in a combination of nineties retro and the latest hipster fashions and has a very un-teen appreciation for Sting. Meanwhile, Riley’s nerdy friend Sander (Aaron David Johnson, in the Jon Cryer role) has the hots for Riley. That seems like your standard high school movie pine-fest, but as Detention zooms along, endless layers of complexity are added to these relationships, revealing a farrago of yearnings and counter-yearnings that would make Douglas Sirk proud. Eventually even the dickhead principal played by Dane Cook turns out to have his own little tale of heartache. And, oh, right, a crazed killer’s still on the loose. Sort of.
Detention seems like the product of a mind so steeped in pop culture that it’s aware everything’s essentially been done. What has not been done, at least not quite in this way, is a movie that seems to acknowledge, at practically every other second, the predictability of its chosen genre, and thus changes it. That’s actually not such a bad metaphor for the high school experience itself: Kahn and co-writer Mark Palermo seem to understand that at this age, everybody is living in their own little movie, and they’ve made that the governing aesthetic of their film. Each character has his or her (consciously melodramatic and derivative) story, and the film gleefully detours further and further into these mini-pastiches as it speeds along, complete with portentous chapter titles (“The Terrible Ultimatum of Clapton Davis” “The Lonely Ballad of Billy Nolan,” etc.). By the time it’s all over, we’ve gone back in time, explored a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie, foiled a plot to destroy the world, expounded on the different fighting styles of Patrick Swayze and Steven Seagal, and discovered the origins of the expression “guac.” Also, a character becomes pregnant with herself.
Have I given too much away? Don’t worry, there’s a lot more. Eventually, it all kind of blends together, like a mixtape where the songs all play at once. This feels like both a blessing and a curse. Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World had a similarly inventive spirit, but it was suffused throughout with longing. And Detention is actually at its best when it seems like it might be slowing down — an early montage laying out the various romantic desires of its characters is both hilarious and heartbreaking. You admire the movie for refusing to ever, ever slow down, but you also wonder what might have happened had Kahn dared to settle, even just a bit. Instead, what we get is a mad kaleidoscope of genre, with occasional glimpses into the mysteries of the exploding teenage heart.