[6 May 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When you name-check one of the great post-modern rock albums of all time, you better be prepared to deliver on your poseur promise. A nod to Sonic Youth, however, is only one of Michael Goldbach’s many halting homages in the comic, high school coming of age, serial/sex killer angst fest Daydream Nation. Focusing on a voluptuous teen (essayed with mandatory snark by a comely Kat Dennings) and her senior year in the middle of nowhere, British Columbia, we get digs at David Lynch, mimicry of the likeminded Richard Kelly, and enough industrial fire clouded local color to choke a Canadian thoroughbred. While not always comfortable in its quaint, quirky skin, it does deliver some intriguing performances and some inventive directorial turns.
Existing in a world where parents aren’t divorced but widowed (or widowers), sexy smart-ass Caroline Wexler (Dennings) finds herself “the new girl” at her latest institution of lower learning. Immediately determining that she’s the hated outsider that everyone outwardly loathes, she hooks up with equally disconnected teacher Barry Anderson (Josh Lucas). He’s a failed novelist returning to his home town with a need for a new muse. Screwing a student seems to be the cure for what ails him. In order to maintain the aura of normalcy, they agree she should start ‘dating’ a doormat her age. Caroline picks the sensitive and highly impressionable Thurston (Reece Thompson) as her target. Naturally, he falls head over heels. Along the way, the illogical love triangle runs into town suspicions, misplaced emotions, and a white suited killer who is using the local adolescent populace as his own disturbing dead pool.
Finding yourself has never been as odd and idiosyncratic as depicted in the otherwise indifferent - and still entertaining - Daydream Nation. Yes, you have to put up with enough indie smarm to put you off vinyl records for the rest of your life, but at least you’re not sampling a prissy primer ala Diablo Cody. For his part, writer/director Goldbach remembers to include a little realistic human interaction in between all the strangled surreality. Then again, he’s so obsessed with underage fornication and drugs that he often loses sight of his strengths. He’s got Dennings doing her sarcastic, seductive best, Lucas looking handsome if haunted, and Thompson taking on the majority of the movie’s underlying melancholy. But Goldbach falls into the pattern that many first time feature filmmakers do - he tries for too much. He keeps pushing and pushing to make his points when a more passive approach might have helped.
This is especially true during the sequences divided up into “chapters.” Instead of calling them “flashbacks”, or simply relying on the audience’s desire to have some narrative gaps filled in, Goldbach goes overboard, turning each one of these separate little “tales” into an obvious bit of padding. Sure, we need to know why Thurston is so somber, or how Mr. Anderson became the well groomed wreck he is today, but these asides are forced, as if put in to make the script more attractive to potential producers. In fact, a lot of Daydream Nation seems geared toward establishing a reputation (or building a resume), not realistically addressing the needs of the narrative. Luckily, there are other moments that counterbalance such directorial bravado.
We ‘get’ Caroline’s need to put people off. It’s been her defense mechanism since her Mom’s death. Her dad is the kind of overprotective parent that sees menace in even the most well-meaning move. When Thurston stops by to introduce himself, Caroline’s father is like Jack Webb in khaki jackboots. Later on, when confronted by the boy’s mother (a nice turn by Andie McDowell), he loosens up and tries being less guarded. Their eventual dance is one of the nicer turns in Daydream Nation, as are the times when our heroine isn’t putting on airs and acting like a diva. Indeed, Dennings’ portrayal can be borderline annoying, filled with clipped conceits and box top bon mots that seem lifted from lesser material. Though she has one great line (about planning/regretting one’s wedding), the rest of the time she seems unnecessarily mean.
And then there is the whole “serial killer” subplot. To say it makes little sense in the overall Daydream Nation experience gives ‘pointlessness’ a whole new meaning. It’s given little set-up, seems imported in from an entirely difference screenplay, and pays off in a way that works your last logical nerve. Stretching things a bit, one could argue that Goldbach was “symbolically” suggesting that life is more than just classrooms and cliques, that mere existence will throw you curves - even deadly ones - without you even knowing it. Still, after the other random deaths in the film (all given the chapter/flashback strategy), do we really need someone un-tethered to the rest of the characters trying to bump them off, one by one?
Are these minor misgivings? Not really. Again, Goldbach is congesting his movie gratuitously, taking away bits of its already inherent charm by more or less gilding the logistical lily. So instead of a sprint, Daydream Nation comes across as a race of high hurdles, some being much bigger than the others. We do get to the finish line - eventually - and feel better for having competed, but the last few laps are tough indeed. For his part, Michael Goldbach shows the skill that will surely serve him well, should he every cross over into the mainstream. Until then, he will have this well-meaning if overflowing calling card to rely on. Daydream Nation will definitely speak to a demographic fed up with Hollywood’s often oversimplified view of what it’s like to be young, impressionable, and alone. For many, though, it will be too self-conscious and self-referential to be truly inspiring.