Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Movie Review: Daydream Nation

Daydream Nation ** ½
Directed by: Michael Goldbach.
Written by: Michael Goldbach.
Starring: Kat Dennings (Caroline Wexler), Reece Thompson (Thurston), Josh Lucas (Barry Anderson), Andie MacDowell (Enid Goldberg), Rachel Blanchard (Ms. Budge), Natasha Calis (Lily Goldberg), Quinn Lord (Thomas), Calum Worthy (Craig), Katie Boland (Jenny), Genevieve Buechner (Tina), Luke Camilleri (Rolly).

I found much to admire about Canadian filmmaker Michael Goldbach’s debut film Daydream Nation, even if ultimately I think the film doesn’t quite succeed. Goldbach crafts some interesting characters, has some snappy dialogue, gets good performances from most of his cast, and has a definite visual style. But like many first time filmmakers, he simply tries to do too much. Cross Juno with Donnie Darko, and you have an idea of what Goldbach wanted to achieve, but ultimately fails to. His movie about small town life is just too jam packed for its own good.

The movie stars the talented Kat Dennings as Caroline Wexler, who in her senior year in high school is horrified to find that her widowed father is moving, yet again, from the city to a small town. She walks into a high school where half the students are cruel beyond belief and the other half are stoned out of their minds at all hours of the day. What’s more is that their small town is beset by two different crisis – one is an industrial fire on the outskirts of town, pouring god know what chemicals into the atmosphere and which no one can put out, and the other is a serial killer in a white suit, who is killing beautiful young women in the area. Caroline, like all the other teenagers in the movie, don’t seem to care much about these events though (and neither, it seems, does Goldbach who I think was just trying to give the film a colorful backdrop).

The reason to see the film is mainly Kat Dennings, who is funny, witty, charming and sexy as Caroline, a teenage girl who plays different roles for different people because she’s still trying to figure out who she really is. She is drawn first to stoner Thurston (Reece Thompson), and plays the part of stoner chick with him to a certain extent – although she gets annoyed when he doesn’t get his Atom Egoyan joke (and we’ve all been there right?). She decides to seduce her English teacher, Barry (Josh Lucas), at first because she thinks he is smarter and more sophisticated than the high school boys. As their affairs moves along however, it becomes clear that he really is just a shallow, superficial man child – no more mature than the boys in school at all. He doesn’t see her – the real her – perhaps because she never actually puts that out there. But gradually, as she starts falling for Thurston, I think the real Caroline comes out.

This all sounds interesting, and to a certain extent it is. Dennings is a joy to watch, and the supporting cast for the most part fills out the movie nicely. It’s just that as I was watching Daydream Nation, I felt the movie never really settled down – never really stopped trying so hard, and became whatever it is Goldbach wanted it to be. There’s just so much on the edges of the story that it threatens to take over the whole movie. And as good as Lucas is in parts of the movie, as he degenerates into the pathetic man he really always was in front of our eyes, the movie starts to strain credibility.

Another curious thing that happened to me as I was watching the movie is that I really wanted it to be about a minor character – Jenny (Katie Boland), who doesn’t even show up until the end of the second act. The minute she comes on screen, in the bathroom of the school were she calls Caroline a slut under her breath, she becomes the most interesting character in the film. She is the type of sad, lonely high school girl that movies like Daydream Nation love to make fun of – Dennings certainly rips into her in the bathroom – but she points out the real flaw in Daydream Nation. She seems real – a flawed, but real character that gets lost in the films shuffle to try to be hip and cool. That first scene in the bathroom is harsh and cruel towards Jenny – who somewhat deserves it for calling Caroline a slut anyway – but given what comes after, I don’t think she would have said to Caroline in the first place. Jenny is that high school girl that no one notices, who puts her head down and walks through the halls like a ghost. Her scenes after that moment – the joy when the boy she likes (Thurston) of course agrees to come to her party, her sad quasi-seduction of Thurston at the party, and then the outright anguish as she looks at what has been done to her house because of that party add up to a heartbreaking character. Boland with her sad, puppy dog face is the actress I keep thinking about when I think back to Daydream Nation. In a movie that spends most of its time trying to be hipper than thou, she breaks through the artifice to create a real character.

Overall, I think Daydream Nation is a promising debut for Goldbach. Hell, perhaps I even would have liked it more without Boland, because she points out what is wrong with the rest of the film. I look forward to seeing what Goldbach, and Boland, do next.

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