SXSW Review: Joseph Kahn's 'Detention' is manic throwback horror comedy for Twitter generation
AUSTIN - I wanted to get the quote exactly right, so I went back tonight to look up my review of the 2004 film "Torque." I never reviewed the movie when it came out, probably because it stunned me silent. But at the end of the year, it topped my list of the worst films released that year, and my entire published work regarding the first film by music video wunderkind Joseph Kahn consisted of two sentences: "Joseph Kahn should be tried for war crimes against my eyes and the laws of physics. On the positive side, this may well be the highest-budget film ever directed by a retarded person."
I know it bothered him at the time because I heard from him, and he was very clear and very angry. But after he called me, I never really thought about "Torque" again. It's not a film I've revisited, or that occupies any real space in pop culture at this point. At the time, it was supposed to make Joseph Kahn into a major big-budget guy. There was a fair amount of talk at the time that they were going to hand him "Superman" after he wrapped up on "Torque." That's how confident Warner Bros. was while they were watching dailies roll in. Instead, he dropped back off the feature film world map completely until this week, when his new indie film "Detention" made its premiere as part of the SXSW Film Festival.
I'm guessing Kahn is expecting to get body-slammed this time out, too, as he even includes a very meta-moment in the film where someone looks up a movie review by "Sherlock Moriarty," but my response to the film might surprise him, because his new film "Detention" is every bit as hyperactive and short-attention-span-spastic as his first film, but this time, it worked for me. It struck me as a mash-up of "Weird Science" and "Heathers," madly infatuated with '80s teen films and horror conventions, and paced just right for a generation that digests information 140 characters at a time. It is mad, manic, and seems to feel no obligation to make any sort of conventional sense, but having said that, there is an absolutely ridiculous energy to it that hooked me early and kept me involved the entire time. "Detention" is a preposterous movie, and I think I kind of loved it.
Kahn co-wrote the film with Mark Palermo, and it deals with life at a high school where someone's killing the coeds, aliens appear nightly in the skies, time travel is conducted in the body of a stuffed grizzly bear, and the big jock quarterback may, in fact, be turning into a human fly. Riley (Shanley Caswell) is in love with Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson), but things aren't that simple. She's a big dork, an uber-dork, the sort of person who marks the passage of her day not in minutes or in hours but in how many humiliations she suffers. Kahn's portrayal of teenage life is every indignation turned up to a thousand, and his young cast throws themselves into it with a vigor that is almost intimidating. Caswell is a game lead, and Hutcherson, who also exec-produced the film, is starting to become a very self-aware, very interesting young lead. Spencer Locke, Parker Bagley, Kate Kelton, Walter Perez, and even Dane Cook all do admirable work, adding to the strange and frequently hilarious hodgepodge of influences and ideas.
There's a lot of the film that is downright beautiful in terms of composition, and somehow, even with a plot this unbridled and crazy, there are moments of actual humanity. "Detention" is the sort of film that will either entertain you relentlessly, or irritate you to the point of anger, and I don't think there will be much middle ground. I was surprised how much of it clicked for me, and how confident it all feels. Kahn was at the screening I attended, and he said he decided to make this film independently just to see what happened when he won all his fights on a movie, and if this is the result, then I may owe him an apology. It's canny live-action cartooning, broad and bizarre, and in the hands of the right distributor, "Detention" could be the sort of "Scream 2.0" that people keep looking for, a hyper-aware reflexively film-savvy ride through one filmmaker's influences that works as both meta and text, and I hope the film finds a home at this festival.