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Click Here for a Q&A The Collegian held with Joseph Kahn, the director of Detention
Pop culture nerds will take delight in “Detention,” a quick-witted comedy that lovingly rolls in the muck of teenage culture, has a smart mix of crude and bone-dry humor, and features a time-traveling bear mascot.
The same delight may not apply to unprepared audience members. Director and co-writer Joseph Kahn’s 22-year history as a music video director and member of Generation X displays prominently on this film’s snarky appearance. References to the “Backstreet Boys,” “Scream,” Patrick Swayze, “The Breakfast Club,” Steven Segal, “Sixteen Candles,“ “Iron Man,” Nirvana and nearly every considerable person or thing with a fading popularity from the ‘90s becomes implemented with a hyperactive aplomb.
The film’s script, co-written by Mark Palermo, often involves a quick recreation of an iconic scene, an extended metaphor, the eclectic soundtrack, and even an encyclopedic onscreen pop-up. The film rewards a mind buzzing with such cultural minutiae and even more so those who can keep up.
The movie opens with a fourth-wall breaking exposition of a putridly vain teenager, only for her to be quickly killed off in classic slasher-horror film fashion and replaced by Riley (Shanley Caswell), her working opposite. Riley laments the world for its anti-vegan tendencies and her classmate’s natural neglect of her as a person. She has a crush for the unassumingly cool Clapton (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games), but despises her ex-friend Ione (Spencer Locke) for dating him despite her feelings, spending most of the film battling with her stereotypical limits. Also lurking in the shadows is a maniacal masked killer Cinderhella, who somehow exists in the real world and in the movie-within-a-movie “Cinderhella II.”
From that convoluted plot comes a machine-gun spray of references and plot delivery through quick twists of the imagination, though suited towards Kahn’s strengths. Much like a hype music video similar to Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” Kahn basically chops the entire run into loosely connected stories, allowing him to create fantastic pockets of absurdity and overtly tangential parodies. By no small feat, the entire cast faithfully commits to the script’s sheer insanity, with standouts being Caswell for carrying the core plot and Locke for her character’s absurdly manic antics.
“Detention”’s antics, while commendable for their intense jokes-per-minute nature, can avert too much attention from the core plot. Certain running gags, such as a jock undergoing a painful mutation usually reserved for a geek or the improbable intricacies of time travel, play out in away that gleefully go over some viewers’ heads, yet still manages to resolve character arcs. A few of them, such as a YouTube video of a horror film inside another horror film and the tacked-on sequences with Cinderhella killing off characters for no discernable reason, felt unnecessary and too distracting.
The film’s stunning cinematography, however, will keep people interested. Along with the aid of clean High Definition shots that enhance the colorful high school scenery, the camerawork leads the audience through scenes and, at times, becomes a critical point of the joke. Even though the succession of plot from scene to scene feels loose, the wealth of perspective within each scene stunningly overwhelms the senses.
Such profuse information initially appeared detrimental to the film’s appeal, but also suggests a commentary on the modern teen. As random and ephemeral as certain sequences or the jokes were, one cannot help but find similar sentiments to those who grew up with the Internet. Users in control of that bulging stream of data remain unaware of how much lies before them, but the film’s passive experience intensifies that realization tenfold.
“Detention,” for brevity’s sake, can boil down to a high-stakes, teenage-focused episode of “30 Rock.” It is well-acted and quick-witted comedy that takes the genre domain of “Scary Movie,” the acute knowledge required of Jeopardy contestants, and the fast-paced dialogue of acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin, creator of “The West Wing,” and lets these themes fly in and around each other for a brisk 90 minutes. Those hoping for the leisurely pace and low humor of “Scary Movie” will have some problems, but viewers who get the film’s sensibilities and manage to keep in step with the repartee are rewarded with recess-level fun.