Daydream Nation (2010)

Here’s a movie that I would have loved ten years ago. That’s not a slight on the film, I liked it, but I bring to it a certain lack of impressionable youth that I now know I didn’t even have back then. This movie reminds me of other movies, but not in terms of plot or even merit. I’ve just felt the marks hit in it before in ways that were revelatory in those other movies (like say the way love is approached in Magnolia, or teenage ennui in Donnie Darko, etc.), but here they just come across as unintentionally derivative (if this sounds a bit too harsh, it’s only because those movies are in leagues of their own).
The title caught my eye awhile back, as it is an obvious reference to the great record by Sonic Youth. The film has several of their songs and some other songs from the era, but makes no attempt to be set in the late ’80s (cell phones giving away the lack of anachronization). These are details best left to sweep away (along with the fashion mag-like poster art that has nothing to do with the film). One can only assume the writer-director has a certain like-minded affinity for these bands (though hearing Sebadoh’s “Gimmie Indie Rock” at a post-millenial high school party is a bit too much cognitive dissonance for me).

So, now that the criticism is out of the way, let me recommend this movie to you.
This is a first feature for writer-director Mike Goldbach. I don’t know anything about him and I didn’t bother to look too hard. However, I will most definitely be watching whatever he does next. This is the type of film that has so much going on in it (and for it), that it just cannot help failing to bring it all together in a satisfying way. You have to get beyond that to enjoy the film. It has some great moments from a writer who is clearly self-reflexive enough to recognize his own shortcomings here. Yet, the film is made. So, he’s in a better position than most.

You get little moments that define characters, rather than an overall plot-directed story. The film evokes an overall mood of unbridled teenagery that is rare to see in American film; Smart and assured posturing with simultaneously instant vulnerability and doubt. Caroline Wexler (Kat Dennings) is a meta-character in a play filled with people who define themselves by what they think other people (are supposed to) think of them. She says from the beginning that she is a girl who is playing a part. Yet, somehow in playing this “ethereal” worldly-wise teenager she comes to terms with her own frailties. She chooses to be who she is rather than who she thinks she wants to be. Some things are momentarily “perfect” and that’s worth something more than trying to rise above what could be seen as anything but. It’s a coming-of-age story, but one where the characters skip too far ahead and have to come back to where they belong (I left this movie thinking, ‘Who is this Reece Thompson‘? Oh, yeah, from Rocket Science. Another great performance).

The two male suitors are subtly left to comment on each other. Both have love to give, one whose is initially misplaced and the other’s whose initially has nowhere to give it.  This film is less about resolution (for it is a jumbled one) and more about the comparative impressions between characters. Aside from these two male leads (Josh Lucas plays the teacher with a complexity of both shallowness and depth), I feel like most of the supporting characters are underdeveloped (especially the younger children). Andie MacDowell isn’t really given enough time to have a definable character as the mother, but she makes her role memorable (I point this out because I’ve never really liked her before). Her scene with Caroline’s father (Ted Whittall) is, in retrospect, so deft. They have both loved and lost; in a position beyond the other characters, where they simply enjoy the brief company of each other. I made the mistake of assuming there would be some sort of further involvement between these characters, when I now see that it quite aptly encapsulates the film as a whole: be aware of the little moments that will only seem perfect in retrospect because one will be both too close to them to notice in the present and too far from them to accurately represent them in the future…


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