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Back to School

click to enlarge detention-9930.jpg

School daze: Susana Gibb plays a troublesome high school student subjected to re-education methods by a maverick teacher in Detention, playing Aug. 12 at Sonoma Cinemas as part of the Wine Country Film Festival.

'Detention' offers a dark look at education

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

WHEN TEXAS filmmaker Andy Anderson debuted his first film, Positive I.D., at the Wine Country Film Festival in 1987, it was met with both applause and a few raised eyebrows. The low-budget thriller told the tale of a unfulfilled housewife who is unable to recover from being raped. When she learns that the man who assaulted her is being released from prison, she leaves her philandering husband, takes on a new identity, and makes plans to exact revenge on her rapist.

Twelve years later, Anderson has returned to the Wine Country Film Festival with a story not so much about revenge as about redemption.

More of what's playing at the Wine Country Film Festival

In the black comedy Detention, John Davies, the veteran B-movie actor who co-starred in Positive I.D., is a washed-up, unemployed teacher. As the film--which screens Aug. 12 at Sonoma Cinemas--opens, we see him sitting on his couch as someone pounds on his door: the repo man? the IRS? We never know. The camera pans across his home and highlights a rotary phone, a cigar-store Indian, an AM radio, and sepia-toned circus photos. Davies, as the middle-aged Mr. Walmsley, is clearly a man out of place in the contemporary era.

So when a call comes in offering him a chance to substitute-teach at the appropriately named Donner High School, he leaps at the chance. He obviously needs the work. But more than that, this is a man grasping at his last link to modern society.

But Walmsley is quickly discouraged by his frightened colleagues, his belligerent students, and the litigation that now governs teaching.

After several outbursts and dangerous encounters (a harassed gay kid, a beaten teacher), Walmsley takes matters into his own hands by kidnapping several problem kids and driving them to the mountains of the Big Bend area in Texas. This is where the film--which to this point has been a derivative morality tale--finally gets some oomph.

Walmsley strips the kids, both literally and metaphorically, of their few resources, and then uses their own music, methods, and vernacular to modify their behavior. As Walmsley plays Toni Basil's song "Mickey" over and over again, viewers, too, sense the urgency of his mission. He must save these kids for his own redemption. And when his plan begins to work, it's easy to understand why. Forget the electroshock or the circus cages--just hearing that shrill refrain "You're so fine, you blow my mind, hey Mickey" for the 40th time would make even a hard-core delinquent relent.

Of course, there's no shortage of films about high school. But rarely are they as provocative and cross-generational as Detention.

While the opener is protracted and awkward, and some of the language is painfully dated (someone needs to tell Anderson that teens no longer say "as if"), the bulk of the film manages to carefully straddle the line between suburban boomer fantasy and a teensploitation morality tale. And regardless of which side of that generational line you come down on, Detention offers a disturbing look at behavior modification.

From the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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