Of Slackers, Super Powers, and Romance
For the beginning of Dakota Skye, writer Chad Shonk and director John Humber make the smart and risky choice to acknowledge the comic book DNA that they’ve spliced into their low-key romantic comedy. Smart, because any 18-year-old girl with a “superpower” in today’s America would choose to understand herself at least partly in terms of what she ‘knows’ from comics. Risky, because the acknowledgment brings with it questions about the hero that are difficult to answer in a feature film.
Dakota Skye starts near the end of its narrative, with a dreaming Dakota (Eileen Boylan). Upon waking, she introduces herself as “eighteen”, “medium cute”, and as having a “superpower”. Specifically, she has the ability to know when someone is lying.
The scene shifts from home to her high school graduation, and then to the beginning of a post-graduation road trip. The start of her trip prompts a flashback, where we find Dakota sleepwalking through junior year and in a comfortable, verging on stagnant, relationship with 20-something Kevin (J.B. Ghuman Jr.).
Enter Jonah (Ian Nelson), Kevin’s best friend on a visit from New York – the film appears to be set in Arizona - -where he is trying to make it as an actor. Inevitably, Dakota and Jonah spark, but not simply from romantic chemistry, or the fact that Kevin, while decent enough, is a self-centered tool, but because Jonah fails to activate her power. Having lived her whole life ‘seeing’ the lies that people tell, Dakota finds herself excited by the prospect of someone who is, apparently, either utterly guileless or unreadable.
Dakota’s special ability is tailor-made to raise questions about relationships. Kevin engages in routine lies, which sets up an easy contrast between him and Jonah. Her power, and how it does, or does not work on Jonah also serves to give some depth to Dakota’s quick attraction to the new boy, and helps to ground her alienation and disaffection with the world. In fact, conventionally, Dakota is a character more likely to be cast in a supporting role, the jaded, brunette best friend to the perky, blond heroine.
Indeed, the most important function of Dakota’s truth-seeing is that it gives the filmmakers the freedom to develop her as a complex teen/young adult, and not reduce her to a girl looking for love. During the course of the movie, she engages in a number of behaviors largely forbidden to female romantic leads. She ditches her friends. She cheats on her boyfriend with his best friend, and does so without any overt displays of guilt. She continues to act as a dutiful girlfriend after the infidelity. She appears to enjoy sex.
In the moral economy of teen romantic comedies and coming of age films, any one of these acts would usually be enough to mark her as a bad girl, or at least as too blemished to be the hero. Here, her power not only makes her, by definition, extraordinary, but the particular nature of her ability means that she always has her own, good and demonstrable, reasons for what she does. She knows, in a real way, that Kevin’s feelings for her are shallow, that her friends are aggravated by her, and that people, boys and men in particular, will say all kinds of things if they think it will result in sex. All of these insights, and the fact that they are shared with the audience, make her behaviors understandable in ways that they normally would not be on screen, even though in the real world of teenagers, they are all common enough.
Ultimately, Dakota owns this film in ways that few women are allowed to do in Hollywood, even in putative ‘chick flicks’. Which guy she ends up with seems far less important than how she comes to terms with herself. Finding Jonah prompts her to hit the road, but ‘getting’ him merely opens a new chapter in her life; it doesn’t bring it to fulfillment. The fact that she thinks of him as her “nemesis” only underscores that happily-ever-after is not the only possible outcome for their relationship.
While Dakota’s superpower serves a vital function in the narrative, it also opens up problems. For starters, it isn’t entirely clear how her power works. What, after all, constitutes a lie? And what is it, exactly, that Dakota is perceiving when she perceives the truth? Does a person have to be consciously deceiving someone? Do they have to be telling themselves the ‘truth’ while telling others the ‘lie’? When a character lies, the ‘truth’ appears in text on screen. Does Dakota literally see the truth, too, or does the text signify what she is sensing in some other way?
Near the end of the film Dakota, while trying to work through a possible, but undetected, lie from Jonah, gets a flash of inspiration about the subjectivity of truth, and how a statement can be simultaneously true and false depending on context and perspective. This appreciation seems to liberate her from the burden of feeling constantly deceived, but the deeper implications, and what it means for how she understands her ability, are only hinted at.
Even if Shonk’s script didn’t invite the kind of comic book geekery I’m engaging in here, these would still be questions with importance to the story. For example, earlier in the film, her power is turned on by the distinction between smoking “a little” and smoking “a lot” of pot and by the difference between thinking that she is a “mean bitch” and stating that she is a “mean bitch” only “sometimes”.
Meanwhile, Jonah fails to trip her ability when he tells he “can’t” say something to her when what he actually means is that he won’t because of his friendship with Kevin. Splitting hairs to be sure, but it is from such fine distinctions of language that Dakota makes her discovery of relativism. And while this adds a level of complexity to her ability, it is a level that the film ultimately fails to explore.
Dakota Skye‘s open-ended conclusion not only allows for a sense of incompleteness to Dakota’s life, it also makes it possible to see these questions about her power as being merely deferred, rather than elided. Fundamentally, Jonah makes Dakota question her assumptions about what her power really means, and the film can be read as being about that process of questioning, and not the answers to the questions.
However, given the lack of clarity as to what her ability’s relationship to Jonah actually is – is he incapable of lying at all or just incapable of lying to her; maybe he is only unable to lie early in the relationship, at the moment of attraction; perhaps he is merely a master of believing what he says; or maybe she simply can’t tell when he lies – this reading may hold the story together and it may not. In the end, how invested you feel in Dakota and her personal journey is likely more important than the ins and outs of her power.
In that regard, Eileen Boylan capably carries Dakota Skye, not only appearing in virtually every frame, but also narrating in voiceover. On the other hand, on the small screen at least, she doesn’t jump out at you, either. Like the movie itself, her charm and charisma is more casual than intense. She has a comfortable rapport with Ian Nelson, but in the absence of Dakota’s power as a rationalization for their attraction, it seems unlikely that she and Jonah would have enough native heat to make the film work.
The supporting characters are largely one-note, filling narrative niches, but not much else. Dialogue is often stilted, making Boylan/Dakota’s narration even more welcome as a way to move the story forward.
The nicely featured DVD includes a commentary track with Humber and Shonk, a trailer and character introductions for Dakota, Jonah, and Kevin, cast and crew interviews, bloopers, and a stills gallery. Humber and Shonk, while taking the chance to pass around some thank yous and appreciations, also offer a substantive, and affectionate, look into the production. Their commentary further suggests that for the filmmakers, the movie is fundamentally about the characters and their emotions, and not the broader logic or implications of the hero’s power. The cast and crew interviews are short and entertaining, focusing on questions related to, but not really about, the film.
If Dakota Skye were a comic book, it would be a small press title, and not a glossy book from Marvel or DC. For what distinguishes the film is not so much its hero’s superpower, but her self-possession and independence. The romantic comedy is a genre that all too often features female leads who are lonely, lovesick, and desperate for the attention of men. Within this frame, Dakota is a refreshing change of character. That alone makes the movie’s unanswered questions worth working through, even if it doesn’t make them go away.