ET, go home
High school can be an awful time. Many folks remember it as a time full of trauma and depression, a time that they survive more than savor. High school movies can be even worse, mainly because they tend to present that difficult experience as 1) all about football, sex, and apple pies, or 2) all about some depraved individual staggering around with a sharp object, slashing every student body in sight.
Donnie Darko, the first film by 26-year-old Richard Kelly, strikes an unusual balance between such overbearing sweetness and tedious screamfests. Here high school is undoubtedly unnerving, even surreal, but it’s also tentative and complicated, a time of constant negotiation between well-meaning but oblivious adults, and distressed but capable, intelligent kids. That the film includes elements of science fiction, horror, and dry, dark comedy makes it not only eminently fun, but also somewhat disturbing to watch, for this is much the way high school tends to loom in individual memory, no matter the collective obfuscations. Cleverly metaphorical and sometimes frighteningly literal, Donnie Darko connects memory with the local and broader cultures that shape it, and never lets you forget that recollection is a process of questions and permutations, not a fixed and absolute answer.
The high school student at the film’s center, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal, whose career thus far has bounced rather surreally between the lovely October Sky and the awful Bubble Boy), is going through a rough time. He’s growing up in the chillingly serene suburbs of Middlesex, Virginia, in 1988, or more precisely, in the month before the Bush-Dukakis election. Reagan’s renewed morning in America has long since faded and fears of every kind of invasion, from without and within, and are raging.
Donnie is rightfully nervous, as well as depressed, sleepwalking, perhaps schizophrenic, and most certainly seeing things, including a fellow named Frank (James Duval), who wears grimly gray rabbit suit and instructs him in the ways to burn down houses and otherwise disrupt the onerous flow of daily life in the burbs, and by the way, tells him the world will end, at an appointed time. The rest of the movie includes intertitles counting down the days and hours, intimating the urgency Donnie feels, along with his increasing guilty about the disruptions he causes at Frank’s behest, and by extension, his depressed/schizophrenic condition. But he’s also intent on hanging onto Frank, who saves his life, as far as Donnie can tell. Specifically, Frank calls him outside one evening, just as a plane engine falls from the sky into his bedroom. The fact that there is no plane in the vicinity apparently leads to one of those alarming insta-invasions by ET-like government types, some wearing hazmat suits and others suit-suits, all scooping up the evidence and hurrying the hapless and rather understandably stunned family off to stay in a hotel, on the condition that they promise not to speak of the event, under threat of something, I’m not sure what.
It’s the very mushiness of the threat—all threat, I suppose—that makes culture and industry hum, in SF, life, and history. Monsters and villains can lurk anywhere: the morning after the plane engine disaster, Donnie awakes on the local golf course, the greenness rolling all around him, suggesting safety and beauty and peace. All false, of course: as soon as he’s rubbing his eyes, Donnie is discovered by Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), local celeb and odious impresario behind a lucrative series of self-help videos that reduce all human experience to the poles of fear and love. Cunningham begins to chide the boy, making fun of his infamous sleepwalking exploits. But Donnie knows his enemy, or thinks he does, and is also clearly leaning toward the wrong end of the love-fear gamut, much as he’d like to find someone to love. Worse, when Cunningham comes to school to spread his smarmy gospel, Donnie takes him on in front of the entire assembly.
Donnie has a similar run-in with Cunningham’s number one fan, high school gym teacher and coach for the girls’ expressive dance team, Miss Kittie Farmer (Beth Grant). Donnie’s little sister is on this team (called Sparkle Motion), bound eventually for Star Search, with sequined leotards and an elaborate routine to the tune of Duran Duran’s “Notorious,” and while his mother, Rose (Mary McDonnell), appreciates the girl’s enthusiasm, she can hardly abide Kittie’s hyper-functional arrogance; still, even when Rose defends her son to the gym teacher, the film suggests that it’s too little, too late. Donnie is too far gone.
What with his sleepwalking adventures and occasional run-ins with crotchety authority figures like Cunningham and Kittie, Rose and Donnie’s ineffectual dad Eddie (Holmes Osborne) are sending him to see a shrink, the kindly but clearly out of her depth Dr. Lillian Thurman (Katharine Ross), who decides to try hypnotherapy with him, as if getting inside his head is possible or desirable: during one session, the apparently entranced Donnie begins to masturbate in front of her and she’s so horrified and embarrassed that she can’t continue. It seems clear that Donnie must seek help elsewhere.
And so he does seek it, in a few places. For one, and almost in spite of himself, Donnie pursues the dreamy new girl in town, Gretchen (Jena Malone), who patiently accepts and even approves of his strange behavior—at least he doesn’t taunt her or threaten her sexually, like the yucky “popular” boys at school. While Gretchen offers some earthbound solace, Donnie also starts looking beyond, glomming onto his hallucinations as signs of deeper insight. These involve his seeing not only Frank (who pops up in intimate spaces—Donnie’s bathroom and bedroom, on the other side of a sleeping Gretchen in the movie theater—spewing adolescent venom and vengeance dreams), but also other people, whom he imagines are traveling along fixed time routes emerging from their middles.
The film lets up in on all these visions, which it probably needn’t have done: you see Frank in bunny-costume, his hideous teeth gleaming in the dark, and you see these folks preceded by long, silvery columns, “spears,” Donnie calls them, that look rather like the friendly, life-affirming water-alien in James Cameron’s The Abyss. Attempting to put two and two together, Donnie tracks down his science teacher, Dr. Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), who initially tries to explain relativity, Steven Hawking, and time travel, then finally admits that he can’t really talk about such things, because he might “lose his job.” Indeed, when Donnie’s English teacher, Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore, whose appearance is brief and whose Flower Films produced this movie) does lose her job, when she has the kids reading stories that give them ideas (she’s accused by the principal of being unable to “communicate” with her charges).
Eventually, Donnie finds himself reading a book recommended by Monnitoff, The Philosophy of Time Travel, written by Roberta Sparrow, a local woman rumored to be 100 years old and now named “Grandma Death” by the kids who whisper about her as they watch her repeatedly returning to her mailbox, looking for letters that never come. But once Donnie comes to an understanding of time travel—an understanding that Kelly confesses is lifted from La Jete, by way of 12 Monkeys—Donnie sees something else in her. Not death, but life, rhythm, and hope. Specifically, he sees the frightening force of memory and the promise of the future, the circles of time that envelope anyone able to understand and appreciate. The film never fully explains Donnie’s darkness, but that’s exactly right. He’s a kid, lost forever in his kidness, never pulled inside adult rationality and always searching for that connection between him and the life throbbing all around him. He thinks he’s an alien, but you know better.