Detention (2011) – Directorial Originality


Directed by Joseph Kahn. Starring Shanley Caswell (The Conjuring, NCIS: New Orleans), Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games, Bridge to Terabithia, The Kids Are All Right), Spencer Locke (Phil of the Future, Resident Evil Films), Aaron David Johnson (Finding Hope, Zombie 360), and Dane Cook (Employee of the Month, Dan in Real Life, Good Luck Chuck).

I just finished watching Detention, music video director Joseph Kahn’s second feature film, for the second time, and I want to point out four aspects of this genre-blending high school film that struck me as original.

It’s been explicitly stated in interviews with Kahn that this film is, in part, about changing the way that movies connect with younger audiences. FOMO-stricken millennials are constantly distracted by multiple screens and incessant stimuli, so why not make movies that better hold these jumping beans’ attentions? One of the main goals of Kahn with Detention seems to make a new kind of movie, a movie that attempts to make cinematic language denser and more attention-holding. Is it a coincidence that Detention and Attention sound so similar? Well, I think so. But still. The connection can be made.

Btw, you should watch Detention! But if you do, pay for it. Spend the 3-4 bucks to rent it on iTunes or online. Joseph Kahn funded the film himself instead of resorting to crowdfunding. This is an admirable thing for an established industry professional to do, and he should be paid if you view his work!

Here are the four aspects of Detention that struck me as things that filmmakers and film appreciators alike can learn from:

1.) Interactions Between Characters And Titles/Music

The fourth wall is arguably broken throughout Detention by the film’s reflexive nature. It knows it’s a movie about the nature of filmmaking. The opening titles are all formed by elements within the shots:

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In Shanley Caswell’s first scene, the title that appears in one shot is shown in another shot as well, conveying the title as actual hovering text within the room:

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A third example is when Clapton (Josh Hutcherson) swipes away a mass of text during a bowling scene. The text disintegrates. A final example is towards the end. There’s a hopeful song playing as Shanley Caswell’s character narrates, and she pauses and says, “I can’t think to this song.”

The film’s (and characters’) awareness of cinematic elements like titles and non-diegetic songs works in this film better than in most others because one of the main points of this film is to reflect on the process of visual storytelling itself. Other films use these sorts of elements simply to be flashy, but here, Kahn is using these reflexive techniques to get us thinking about how movies are made today.

Before I move on, I also noticed something that Kahn does editing-wise that I don’t see a lot in films today. I also saw this sort of thing happen in his recent short POWER/RANGERs.

In this conversation between Josh Hutcherson and Dane Cook, they’re talking in a close-up:

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During a moment of silence in the conversation, we hear Dane Cook start to say the next sentence, and then we cut to Josh Hutcherson and Dane Cook back sitting down conversing.

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The conversation is worded as if it’s continuous, but there’s a clear jump in time visually, as the characters are up close together at first and then seated in the next shot. I can’t figure out if this was an editing choice, to shorten and tighten the scene, or if it was a deliberate on-set storyboarded choice, somehow meant to disrupt our conception of what a scene is, and screw with viewers temporally. For what purpose, I have no idea. But it’s interesting.

2.) Act Structure

The introduction of one of the most high-concept conflicts of the film (the students must sit in detention and miss prom so they and Dane Cook, the principal, can figure out who the town murderer is), which usually would occur in the first 10-20 minutes of a typical three-act film, doesn’t occur until exactly halfway through the film (~46 min into a 90-minute film). While one could argue that the murderer is introduced in the first few minutes of the film and thus Detention obeys the standard three-act structure, my point is more that it doesn’t matter that much when certain plot-advancing elements occur in Detention, because the film is a little less about what’s happening and more about how events are being portrayed on camera. With its constant references and hyperstimulating visuals, Detention deals predominantly with style and technique with respect to the storytelling process.

3.) Visuals

Coming from a music video background, Joseph Kahn is strikingly efficient when it comes to visuals. He can convey a ton of emotion and information with very little. Take the dancing scene between Clapton and Shanley Caswell’s character, towards the end of the film. In two eye close-ups, Clapton first narrows his eyes seductively:

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In her close-up, Shanley Caswell opens her eyes, to convey how enamored and responsive she is to Clapton’s confidence:

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This is the epitome of showing not telling, and it demonstrates unprecedented visual storytelling sophistication. This sort of efficiency is apparent throughout the film.

4.) It Still Makes You Feel Something

I took a screenwriting workshop with an established screenwriter recently. He asked us, what do all our favorite films have in common? The answer was, they made us feel something. Although Detention is primarily cerebral and clever and smart and ground-breaking due to its density, sharpness, quickness, and sheer quantity of references, it also makes room for emotional depth. One scene between Josh Hutcherson and Shanley Caswell tackles the subject of growing up, settling down, and having kids. Josh Hutcherson’s character says, referring to everyone about to go off to college and start their descent into domesticity, “These are our final days.” This was a nice change of pace and tone in an otherwise frenetic film.

Many of my favorite movies are like comfort food. They’re damn good, and I like having dishes like that frequently. With Detention, Joseph Kahn serves up jellyfish sushi. It’s different. It’s not comfort food, and while it’s definitely a change from our typical definition of “delicious,” it’s captivating, and I’d have it again.