Review: Detention

The weekend's other totally meta horror comedy is even better than The Cabin in the Woods. And it has a time traveling bear.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


I first saw Detention at the 2011 South by Southwest film festival. Over the course of the last year I have managed to see it four times total, and even on the fourth viewing it remains not only a densely packed rewarding film, but also an engaging story. It’s just plain fun.

At its heart, Detention is about outcast high school student Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell). Cool slacker Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson Hunger Games Peeta keyword) has been her platonic friend growing up, and he’s pining for the cheerleader Ione (Spencer Locke.) In a normal movie, you’d just wait for him to inevitably realize Riley’s been the girl for him all along. In Detention Riley gets stalked by the serial killer from a torture porn franchise called CinderHella. When Principal Verge (Dane Cook) gives Riley, Clapton, Ione and their classmates detention, things get even crazier.

There’s also a time traveling bear, which really means they should have just called this movie Time Traveling Bear. I mean, if you’ve got a time traveling bear it doesn’t matter what the rest of the movie is. A time traveling bear should be enough to get anyone in the door. That’s an example of the whimsically absurd thoughts co-writers Mark Palermo and Joseph Kahn have.

The film can span teen comedy, horror and science fiction because it is wonderfully sincere about all of it. This isn’t a spoof of those genres. It’s a celebration of all of them. Characters even crazier than the time traveling bear garner sympathy and compassion. Caswell is so lovable she just makes us root for Riley, and cheer when she gets a chance to become the hero. Count me on Team Riley. Let’s get that started.

Hutcherson is dreamy dreamboat McSwoony. Cook has a nice turn. Locke is so adorable you never hate Ione’s ditziest or bitchiest moments. Parker Bagley stands out as jock bully Billy Nolan, with a much wittier take on the jock bully than I can remember seeing. Also Travis Fleetwood with the impeccable delivery of a Canadian debater’s rants.

The film makes itself a character in itself. Detention will deliver multimedia information, including graphics and text and the characters will physically interact with the meta information. The film commits to a contract with the audience. This is not a cheap joke. This technique will pay off. You can pack a screen with information and it can be pleasing to the eye.

With all these methods of commentary at its disposal, Detention is a profound meditation on culture. Characters reference new things like chat roulette and nuking the fridge, and retro things like Road House and Freejack on laserdisc. The elements of the story astutely comment on past and present film movements, stopping just short of found footage which wasn’t a significant thing yet, even when I saw it for the first time only a year ago. There’s a pretty astute jab at music criticism in there too.

This sort of commentary is not just fun, it is important. We live and experience culture while other filmmakers with their empty references have made us resent acknowledging it. We shouldn’t avoid it though. We should celebrate how all aspects of our culture interact with each other. It completely pays off in the most meta scene of all time in the detention room.

There are also plenty of sex jokes, vomit and exploding heads. It’s not all highbrow. They satisfy our base desires too. A passionate anti-vegetarian debate has got to make you laugh and Billy’s aborted afterschool fight with Clapton is classy slapstick. The CinderHella scenes are great action. The killer’s attack is clear and the flow of the pursuit is intense.

If you’re a film lover who watches movies all the time, it’s nice to have a film or two out there that elevates the craft of watching a movie. I know I need to go to the next level sometimes. Not every movie has to do that, nor will it because we need the basic movies for movies like Detention to exist. But God damn, it’s nice to have that one. Detention is the movie that gets you personally. In conclusion, Josh Hutcherson Hunger Games Peeta. And Katniss, why not?