May 12, 2011
Daydream Nation (2010) marks the directorial debut of Michael Goldbach and he certainly wears his influences on his sleeve as he evokes television shows like Twin Peaks, other films like Juno (2007), and musical groups like Sonic Youth. It all adds up to a pretty interesting mix as he tries to offer a refreshingly unique take on the high school film while keeping in the proud tradition of young, jaded female protagonists that narrate their own story, from Heathers (1989) to The Opposite of Sex (1998) to Ghost World (2001).
“Have you ever entered a room where you just knew everyone hated you? Now multiply that by roughly a million and you’ll understand my high school experience,” says Caroline Wexler (Dennings) early on in the film. She’s a teenage girl whose father (Whitall) has moved them from the big city to a backwater burg where an omnipresent industrial fire burns continuously in the background. In-between classes, she smokes pot with a bunch of her classmates and this is where she meets Thurston (Thompson), a dreamy stoner that she finds herself attracted to. However, Caroline also finds herself drawn to her English teacher, Barry Anderson (Lucas), which only complicates her life further. If the trials and tribulations of high school weren’t bad enough, the town is being terrorized by a white-suited serial killer with a thing for teenage girls.
Kat Dennings’ wise beyond her years character is certainly nothing new but the actress’ natural charisma and effortless performance almost makes one forget this fact. She first popped up on a lot people’s radar with a small part in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) and a more substantial role opposite Michael Cera in Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist (2008), but with Daydream Nation she finally gets to carry a film on her own. Sadly, it didn’t get much distribution – quickie limited theatrical release in New York City and Los Angeles before heading to DVD. She has to be careful and not become another Thora Birch – start off strong only to make a few bad choices and find herself relegated to made-for-T.V. movies and direct-to-home video fare.
At times, the mash-up of genres in Daydream Nation – the high school film with the serial killer thriller – demonstrates Goldbach’s desire to subvert conventions much like Rian Johnson did with Brick (2005). Like that film, Goldbach’s has plenty of clever dialogue, is expertly photographed (especially for a debut feature) and is anchored by a strong performance from a talented, up and coming actress. The problem is that the high school film has been done to death with most post-1980’s ones living in the shadow of John Hughes. Donnie Darko (2001) and the aforementioned Brick are among the best examples of films that successfully break away from Hughes’ legacy and strike out on their own. It sometimes feels like Goldbach is trying too hard to make Daydream Nation stand out from other high school films and he has certainly crafted a well-written film about a young woman trying to figure out who she is. Caroline is not without her flaws and she does make some bad decisions but is basically a decent person. Based on his work in this film, Goldbach shows a lot of promise and it should be interesting to see what he does next.
There is “Behind the Scenes of Daydream Nation,” a standard promotional featurette as Goldbach and key cast members talk about the characters. He also briefly talks about the inspiration behind the film.