Daydream Nation

Those extra-precious indie moments
Michael Goldbach
Kat Dennings, Reece Thompson, Josh Lucas, Andie MacDowall
The Setup: 
Disaffected teen girl starts an affair with her teacher.

There are many different kinds of mediocre writing. And one of them is the one where the writing is good, the characters distinct, the scenes have shape, and all the elements are cohesive--but there's just too many of them. Too many twists, too many just-so character quirks, too many oh-snap lines, too many extra-precious moments, too many elements that indict a world gone mad. That's the malady this movie suffers. It is "good," has quite good performances, and is entirely entertaining and watchable, while at the same time you won't believe a word of it. Add to that a thick layer of creamy condescension slathered on everything, and you've got Daydream Nation!

Kat Dennings, of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist as well as the wacky sidekick in Thor, stars as Caroline, high school girl who has moved from the sophisticated city to rural North Carolina, which she describes as a "backwoods hick town." By the way, should you watch the "making of" on the disc, among the first things you will hear is the writer/director saying without irony that Caroline moves back to live among backwards hicks, which will let you know that the condescension here is the genuine article. You see, people from the city simply ARE superior. It's just as simple as that. This reminds me of a tweet a friend of mine, who has wholly bought into the New-Yorkers-Are-Superior mentality, once sent out: "The smartest kids in all the high schools in America are now living in New York."

Anyway, things those hicks just accept blindly because they're too stupid to do anything else are a serial killer in their midst, an unstoppable industrial fire on the edge of town, and an atmosphere where a heavy-handed metaphor might assert itself at any moment. One of the first moments where you might call TOTAL FUCKING BULLSHIT on this movie is when Caroline, presented as a totally Hollywood glamazon with the most perfect hair ever, walks down the hall at school describing how she's such an outcast and everyone hates her on sight. This is a whole trend in movies where nerds are cool, but we simply cannot look at an unattractive person, so we present supermodels and act like they're ugly social misfits. The irony is how badly it further marginalized anyone who actually IS an unattractive misfit--and we'll soon have opportunity to see the scorn this film piles on one female character who dares to be a tiny bit pudgy and have imperfect hair.

Anyway, so we're supposed to believe that Caroline is a total social misfit--because she's just too darn smart, see--and she talks at the beginning of idly deciding to adopt a new identity just for shits and giggles. She talks about a desire to "be someone else." There is a great deal of perhaps unnecessary voice-over. So she goes to school where she meets Josh Lucas as Barry, teacher who also just moved back to his rural hometown after living in the city. One detail I loved is that Barry has a poster of Einstein on his wall with the quote "Don't let school get in the way of your education," which is the perfect level of character-setting satire. Also at school is Reece Thompson as Thurston, sensitive but troubled child (dead brother complex) who Caroline is curious about, while also regarding him as a dumb hick. She name-checks Atom Egoyan and he of course has no clue what she's talking about, which allows us to witness how very gracious she is toward these vastly inferior cow-fuckers.

Caroline flirts with Barry after school, then shows up at his house and makes absolutely clear that she wants to have an affair. He has moments of resistance, but ultimately gives in (remember that he is FROM that small town, so he's just a pathetic yokel under his big-city surface) and they go for it ON HIS DESK AT SCHOOL. Okay, so this guy is pretty much insane. You just can't have a character who is supposed to be otherwise even SOMEWHAT rational take a risk like that. Regardless, the affair is started.

Meanwhile we have an extended flashback that explains Thurston's trauma over his dead friend. It would seem that they had a car accident while high, and the friend was more concerned about hiding the drugs than getting medical care, and Thurston ran away to hide the drugs and was too afraid to come back, during which time his friend died and his guilt complex was born. We then have a present-day sequence in which Thurston and friends raid everything in the kitchen in an attempt to get high. At one point Thurston comes over to Caroline's house, at which point her dad is an unforgivably smug asshole toward him. Soon Caroline decides to give in and have a date with Thurston, during which she aggressively forces him into sex, then gets out and dumps him, leaving him feeling used. Barry takes it as her clever attempt to divert attention away from their affair.

Now up until now the movie's smugness has been simmering fairly low, but here's the scene where it comes out and is a bit too much. This girl Jenny, the aforementioned girl who is a bit plump and has bad hair, calls Caroline a slut in the bathroom. This precipitates a long bit of anti-hick superiority on Caroline's part, in which she speculates that Jenny's yearbook photo will be the highlight of her entire life and assails the girl's intellect while delivering a withering assessment of Jenny's value system, until Jenny is left crying. It has the air of the movie encouraging us, the audience, to vicariously get off on this hipster dressing-down of what they imagine to be the ignorant masses, the kicker that we get to watch Jenny REALIZE the truth of Caroline's assessment and end weeping for her overwhelming lameness. So it seems to be that fantasy where you call an ignorant hick an ignorant hick and they don't just get pissed and ignore you (as is likely in real life), but are forced into a full-scale life reassessment! Then Caroline goes outside and CRIES! Because really, it's all about HER!

Then we get a sudden reminder about the serial killer and industrial fire. Caroline's dad is once more a total cock to Thurston, precipitating Thurston's single mom (a quite good Andie MacDowall) to go over and for them to kindle a little romance. Meanwhile Barry has started a new novel, a thinly-disguised story of him and Caroline, which she throws a fit over because he's trying to like, DEFINE her! She abruptly dumps him. He bleaches his hair blond, sort of abrupt and over-the-top for a teacher, and starts cracking up, unable to handle Caroline's rejection. She, throughout, is maddeningly arch and superior, which works for her character. Barry, who we all know is pathetic (he IS named Barry, right?), starts making crank calls to strangers in a British accent. Then he calls up Thurston and tells him about their affair (HARD to believe) and that Thurston has just been used as a cover. This causes Thurston to furiously kick her out, and her to drive away crying, realizing that she really loves Thurston!

She calls him and leaves a blubbering message, but the cruel message cut-off beep occurs just as she finally says the words "I love you!" Can you BELIEVE it? Then she goes over to pitch a weepy fit at Barry, who threatens to kill himself! She leaves him, and next we see him in the shower with a gun! Now, WHERE did this guy get the gun? Please do not ask such questions. He, being such a boob, accidentally shoots himself in the leg, precipitating more desperate calls to Caroline, then a final turn toward a more age-appropriate partner. I have to say that for a while in there I was thinking "Oh no, please don't let Barry turn out to be the serial killer." Luckily, the film avoids that.

For a kicker, the film stages a big drug-fueled teen party at Jenny's house while her parents are away (she is plump and has bad hair, therefore she is reckless in her attempts to buy friendship). She takes a super-high Thurston to her bedroom and attempts to force him into sex (her desperation, etc.). Meanwhile Caroline is out driving around, emotionally-distraught, and I had a queasy feeling we were going to go through the standard thing about her walking in on Thurston with Jenny and misunderstanding, etc., but luckily the movie avoids that, too. Instead, she has a car crash (the movie pointlessly fakes us out that she hit and killed Thurston's mom), where, whaddya know, she kills the serial killer! He gets impaled on a post, Final Destination-style, and makes a sort of confession so that everyone knows he is the killer. News travels fast, and Caroline is hailed as a bit of a hero, which is like, SO ironic, you know? Oh, by the way, Caroline's car features airbags that illuminate when deployed! That must be a custom feature.

Are you ready for the heavy-handed ending? In which we will all receive the statement of what it all MEANS? Caroline is laying in the hospital, where she must sneak out the window, because leaving through the door would not constitute an extra-special movie moment, and reunites with Thurston, brooding on a precipice. As she assails us with more sum-it-all-up voiceover, we see them staring at the industrial fire in the distance. Then they turn, as, pointedly, does the point of view of the camera, and we see that behind them is a gorgeous sunset! You see, your perspective all depends on the way you LOOK at life! It's a glass half-empty or half-full thing, you know? We regard the sun vanishing beyond the hill as Caronline says "Things don't have to last forever to be perfect," to which I was like, woah, man.

I guess the reason I'm being so hard on this movie is that it has so much going for it, one is more critical of the minor, though crucial, things it misses. Kat Dennings is quite good and is certainly comfortable in front of the camera. Her Caroline is very convincing as an arch, superior teenager who regards others as something akin to small children. What the film is less clear on is how much ironic distance it takes on her character, so we're unsure to what degree we're supposed to get behind everything she says, or are supposed to regard her as a confused, foolish teenager who the movie is a bit critical of. On the one hand you have her name-checking some indie film or obscure writer and we're invited to chuckle as the ignorant locals say "Huh, what?" On the other hand, there's a scene where she's repeating her "Yearbook photos will be the highlight of these people's lives," speech to Thurston and he contradicts her, so maybe we're supposed to take a more distanced view? The truth is it's all just a bit muddled.

And the rest of the movie heaps scorn on almost everyone but her. The worst-used is Barry, whose mockery starts with his decidedly uncool name. Josh Lucas is excellent in his role--I didn't know he had this in him--but the movie casts him as a pathetic older guy grasping for his youth and quite mentally-unstable in his pursuit, and finally emotional collapse over, this person who almost anyone would know to keep some serious distance from. It's just never fully convincing, reeks more of screenplay contrivance, which again calls most attention toward the movie's point of view toward him.

Finally, what's it all about? It throws out a number of things, but they never coalesce into a single statement. A serial killer is a fairly serious thing to plop into a movie, but it just never really comes to anything--or its point never comes clear. The industrial fire is okay on the periphery, but it also doesn't seem fully related to the elements in the foreground. Overall, the movie seems to be grasping for some kind of significance--it IS called Daydream Nation, as though it hopes to make some kind of sweeping statement on our national psyche--but it only has several feints in disparate directions. Teens are doing drugs and running wild. Adults are confused and as grasping as the kids are. It all comes down to whether you're looking at the industrial fire or the sunset. Okay, but none of these ever comes together as the point of the movie, and ultimately it all just continues--fairly entertainingly and looking great--but once it's over one has trouble putting a finger on what the point of it all was.

Writer/director Michael Goldbach is obviously quite talented and likely has a few good movies in him. His film just underlines his youth, however, as it's all "talented" yet immature writing. He can write a good scene here, and a good scene there, but he has trouble bringing them all together, and in cutting a few extra-special moments so that the important ones can have the impact they require. And again, there's the condescension problem, which also stinks of immaturity and keeps calling attention, in an unfortunate way, to HIM as writer-director. He can't come up with a more interesting statement than to look at the glass half full, yet he's casting all this scorn on ignorant yokels who haven't heard of Atom Egoyan.

So, good performance by Dennings, great one from Lucas, and a few nice moments and elements--not to mention that it all flows smoothly and is entertaining--but ultimately just not enough to make this worth watching. You won't be sorry you watched it, but you could also easily spend your time on something much more rewarding.

Should you watch it: 

If you are considering casting Dennings or Lucas in a film. Otherwise, there's no real reason to.