Veteran music video director and Torque helmer Joseph Khan is man with something to prove. First and foremost, he wants to prove that post-David Fincher/Scott brother music video directors can bring something to the table that goes beyond visually resplendent, originality free rehashes like (the admittedly good) Charlie Angels remake by Khan's contemporary McG. With Detention, his pop fantasia on pop deconstruction, Khan proves that's he's one of the few working American directors with an eye toward pushing the mainstream forward, even though he does quite have the cinematic chops to match his ambitions. Khan does succeed in proving that genre divisions are a thing of the past.
From its first moments, Detention lets the audience know that itâ(TM)s not going to be a typical teen-horror comedy. We are introduced to Taylor, a Generation Y nightmare made from equal parts My Super Sweet Sixteen protagonist and Hipster Runoff article. She cheerfully berates her hapless family and potential hook ups while extolling her toxically narcissistic and hyper connected world view before being brutally murdered by a generic masked serial killer called Cinderhella. Khan demonstrates that he is aware of the simmering hatred that exists for particularly self-involved teenage girls and the dark satisfaction that comes from seeing them brutally, artfully murdered. From there we are introduced to a group of modernized high school stereotypes; Riley (Shanley Caswell), the kind of girl who goes to a costume party dressed as Angela Chase, Clapton (Josh Hutcherson), a boy with the personality of a young Matthew McConaughey and the taste of Pitchfork blogger, Ione (Spencer Locke) a fractal of a blonde cheerleader, and a lascivious nerd with omnicidal tendencies called Sander (Aaron David Johnson).
Kahn uses and abuses his cast in all the ways we've seen before in '80 teen comedies, Kevin Williamson's '90s output and post 9/11 indie cinema for the first third of the film before adding plot lines of a half dozen other genre movies in the margins of the film to increasingly dazzling effect. Clapton is menaced by an impossibly stupid jock (Parker Bagley) who is going through a Cornenbergian body horror arc. Riley's Heathers' influenced quips fall away when sheâ(TM)s targeted by Cinderhella. Ione becomes the most popular girl in school pulling a Freaky Friday with her mother's teenage self who looks and acts exactly like her. Sander goes through an inversion of Donnie Darko's journey without the benefit of being as attractive as Jake Gyllenhaal. There are other genre types present such Dane Cook's youth hating principle and a few ethnic supporting players that have as minimal characterization, as is tradition but they're mostly window dressing to further underline the moral of most '80s teen comedies: destroy everything unique and unpleasant about yourself and you'll be happy. This thematic spine keeps the piece from falling into incoherence despite the disparate genre elements.
Outside of the carefully dissection of generic types, to which Khan makes the unoriginal judgment that they are not full of depth, he does score some points for his vaguely insightful view of teenage life. Khan gives his kids broad cultural tastes that range from worshiping Patrick Swayze movies to a communal interest in watching the latest torture porn movie. They all speak in Williamson-ian hyper articulation and meta awareness with a presentational style that recalls in her prime Winona Ryder. These elements give the impression that Khan drew inspiration from his own youth rather than the throngs of Katy Perry loving youngsters that Khan makes videos for. But some things are timeless, like parties where the host demands that no one uses the toilet or the way inseparable friendships implode when mutual desire is introduced into the equation. These moments of adolescent pain and insecurity shine through all the layers of reference and sarcasm and hint that Khan has more going on than âlook at how well I've studied the things I loved as a childâ?.
You can see Khan's enthusiasm and visual flair in sequences where a teenager lives through twenty years of changing musical and fashion trends in one beautiful 360 degree shot or how Khan subtly changes up how he films the movie depending on what genre he's playing with; lens flares and speed ramping for the horror scenes and color saturated medium and close shots for the romatic stuff. He also throws in a few bits of the fiery end-of-the-world terror, Glee style musical, and most enigmatically alien abduction conspiracy. This genre mÃ (C)lange works best when Khan focuses on the fantastic, as shown in his music video work where he does spectacle well but he stumbles with it comes to crafting relatable characters. Because Khan fails to maintain a balance between pop fun and smaller moments of human interaction, he fails to successful crossover formats the way Spike Jonze, Jonathan Glazer and Mark Romanek. Detenetion is solid first effort but a first effort nonetheless.
At this point Khan has reached the level of Paul Hunter, Bryan Barber and Hype Williams, being an effective visual stylist who got to make one inventively directed, wildly uneven feature. Hunter, Barber and Williams all retreated back into the world of music videos with periodic threats to return to big screen film making with no success. Khan, with his anarchic tone, inarguable skills and ambition to prove that multiple genres can overlap without drowning each other out could find himself on par with Neveldine/Taylor or he could be the next Marcos Seiga, a man who directed one interesting film followed by a Ryan Reynolds drama and absolute nadir of any filmmaker's career, a Nick Cannon comedy. If he learns the right lessons from his first directorial effort and is selective about the material he works on next he'll make something amazing. If not, he'll be the third choice to direct Green Lantern 2.