Monday, November 5, 2012

Detention (Joseph Kahn, 2012)

Joseph Kahn's Detention is a film so scatterbrained that it cannot even begin before getting distracted, introducing a secondary character before moving onto the protagonist. Kahn links the two with mirroring shot setups and mise-en-scene. The first is Taylor Fisher, the most popular girl at Grizzly Lake High School. Her room is lit as if reflected off her perfect, bleached smile, and she rises out of bed fresh-faced and with perfect hair. Turning the word "bitch" into an inspirational acronym, Taylor Fisher rattles off a set of offensively vacuous rules by which to live life as she sporadically swears at her family and rejects all the boys who call her after she hooked up with them for homework help or just on a whim.

The other girl, Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), exists at the opposite end of the spectrum, socially and, as Kahn twists the same basic shot setups, aesthetically. Where the sun seems to rise with Taylor, Riley groggily rolls out of bed, having passed out with a plate of ketchup-soaked French fries that now soil her clothes. Her posters promote vegetarianism  a cause she takes to less out of belief than to have something that keeps her separate from most others. Her dialogue matches The only thing that truly links them is the casual prescription drug abuse of both. Well, that and the ax-wielding, costumed killer that comes for them both. The killer gets Taylor easily, abruptly cutting short her "arc" before it begins. As for Riley, the killer is just one of many horrors she must face over the course of the feature, none so daunting as regular high school life.

The brief focus on Taylor anticipates multiple diversions across the trim 90-minute running time, breaking up the film as if optimizing it for 10-minute YouTube chunks and the attention-deficit nature of its demographic. Reminiscent of last year's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Detention employs various aesthetic tricks to visualize a generation of kids unable to concentrate for longer than 10 seconds. Its cutaways to backstories for ancillary characters are augmented by shot-to-shot tics such as pop-up text, wild match-cuts and gorgeous but blink-and-you'll-miss-it cinematography. The opening credits capture the film in a nutshell, the camera zipping over the names of cast and crew animated in on various objects and in various styles that connote both an extreme exaggeration and a pure distillation of cross-generational high school touchstones.

Detention contains all the usual tropes of the high school movie—the ugly duckling chasing the popular boy (Josh Hutcherson), the dorky friend (Aaron David Johnson) who pines for that girl as she chases the other lad—but its pop culture frenzy extends to the film's plot, complicating its genre deconstruction with the incorporation of horror and science fiction elements. The latter proves particularly interesting as Kahn repurposes some of the headier elements of Donnie Darko, another teen movie involving wonky time-travel metaphysics, as pure farce. One young woman's obsession with early-'90s pop culture fits within the broader referential humor, but certain plot developments explain why she seems stuck in the past, while the school jock finds himself in a Cronenbergian nightmare when his exhibits fly-like tendencies such as sticky hands and vomited acid. These ludicrous side-issues eventually overwhelm the main plot, if the film could be said to truly distinguish between Riley's ongoing story and all the things that interrupt and add to it.

By going so much further in the quest for a laugh than the host of self-aware high school comedies and parodies, Detention manages to craft much subtler, more visual jokes. I got a kick out of the shot of the girl's bathroom, which appears large enough to be a club dance floor and is crowded enough to be one. Even the spoken-aloud references to the film's influences (as well as that "stupid" movie, Kahn's own Torque) lack the typical laziness of such mentions because the director so cleverly turns the entire film into a spastic pop culture rave, not standing outside its meta-humor but intimately exhibiting it in every frame. Because of this, however, it can be difficult to tell whether the film reflects some of the childishly sexist, egotistical behavior of its characters or if it merely observes them unvarnished. But as all the madcap elements of the story fall into place in the climax, Kahn slyly brings the grotesque misogyny of youth (and its veneration in most other teen movies) into sharp relief. Even that point is stylized, which might keep its intended targets oblivious but cements the film's brash brilliance as one of the few postmodern genre deconstructions to get it all right.

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