Stephen King once claimed that he hated high school and didn’t trust anyone who looked back on their teenage years with pleasure. In his own words: âIf you loved being a teenager, there is something wrong with you. While I have quite a few fond memories of my high school years, mostly due to a few long-standing friendships and a growing obsession with horror movies, even I have to admit it was an absolutely time-honored time. terrifying to be alive.
Back then, movies were one of my only sources of comfort, especially those with protagonists I could relate to. Sure, I loved the John Hughes movies as much as the next budding moviegoer, but I always struggled to identify with the carefree teenagers who populated his stories. However, one fateful day I stumbled across a DVD with one of the most accurate cinematic depictions of adolescence when I was at the perfect age to experience it. Of course, I’m talking about Richard kellythe parable of coming of age / surreal supernatural thriller, Donnie Darko.
2021 marked the twentieth anniversary of Kelly’s feature debut, and although I’ve (luckily) been out of high school for over a decade now, I still see this film as a nostalgic snapshot of a weird moment in life. Being Donnie’s age when I first watched it has certainly helped me connect with the struggles of teens like bullies, girls, and parents worrying about your mental state, but at the time, i was much more interested in the doomsday package that surrounded these items. Nowadays, it is precisely these worldly conflicts that make me consider the film as a classic.
If you’ve never seen this gender weirdness, Donnie Darko follows a young Jake gyllenhaal as the titular Donnie, a sixteen-year-old with a history of emotional problems living in a small town in the ’80s. Set in a single lunar month, the film chronicles Donnie’s attempts to survive high school while still dealing with visions of a man dressed in a creepy bunny costume, warning that the world is going to end soon. There’s also a bit of teenage romance and some time travel shenanigans for good measure.
A bit like adolescence itself, Donnie Darko is a frustrating and rewarding experience that operates more on feelings than on logic. Despite this, the experience somehow ends due to the film’s strong emotional core. With the film clearly taking inspiration from David Lynch’s dreamlike approach to filmmaking, making sense of the series of events in Kelly’s screenplay doesn’t matter as much as what those events do to you. to feel. It only works because the movie lands pretty much every emotional beat in the story.
I actually prefer the theatrical version of the film to the so-called director’s version, which Kelly referred to as more of a âspecial edition,â because he’s actually happy with the original release. The theatrical version leaves more of the story open for interpretation, and having less exposure means audiences can experience the film’s weird events subjectively as if they were some sort of Cinematic Rorschach test. The soundtrack is also a bit off in the director’s cut, especially since I’ve always thought that Echo and the Rabbitmen‘s The murderous moon served as the perfect introduction to this melancholy thread.
Anyway, while being open to interpretation, Donnie Darko a more interesting work of art, it was the luscious influences of sci-fi, horror, and even comics that drew me to film in the first place. In some ways, these influences make this even more of a teen movie, as the story is about speculative ideas that would almost certainly appeal to most teenage viewers. These genre elements begin with the film’s eerie atmosphere, with the story tackling existential terror as the characters explore Kelly’s almost fatalistic approach to time travel.
This metaphysical horror is only exacerbated by Donnie’s status as an outcast and loner, even among his peers, as well as his struggles with mental illness. One rendition of the film even sees the whole thing as a living fantasy from Donnie’s perspective, with the character isolating himself as he loses his grip on reality. The recurring theme of adolescent isolation also leads to one of the film’s scariest moments, with the ending Patience Cleveland (unfortunately in his last theatrical appearance) whispering that “every living creature dies alone”.
Of course, the film’s most iconic spooky moments come from Donnie’s encounters with Frank, who is arguably the most recognizable character in the film. Damn, I only tried the DVD because of the creepy bunny on the cover, so Kelly was clearly on to something with her weird design. There are also other horrible elements, such as Patrick swayzeJim Cunningham’s motivational speaker turning out to be a pedophile, plus plenty of references to classic horror media like Sam Raimi’s the evil Dead and more than a few nods to Stephen King. The entire movie even takes place in October, culminating in a very fitting Halloween celebration.
The subtle influences of the film’s superheroes (which range from charming alliterative names to bizarre superpowers and even multiverse theory) also take a dark turn. You can actually interpret the story as a tragic, convoluted attempt by the universe to teach Donnie that “with great power comes great responsibility.” While I’m not going into the spoilers here, it’s clear that in this case, âresponsibilityâ involves a lot worse fate than just using special powers to fight the costumed villains.
Ultimately, those genre elements only work because the film mixes its teenage fantasy with a compelling tapestry of teenage life in the ’80s. Donnie’s relationships with friends and family are incredibly nuanced and believable, and I especially like the way the filmmakers included Jake’s real sister. Maggie Gyllenhaal in the mix. This allowed for a number of memorable interactions such as the unforgettable “How do we suck?” ” exchange. I would even argue that the film’s unique take on the coming-of-age tropes manages to compete with classic teen movies like Dizzy and confused Where The breakfast club.
I am aware that Donnie Darko isn’t necessarily a perfect movie, with some weird shooting decisions and surreal storytelling that won’t work for everyone, but it’s such an emotional experience that the usual flaws don’t strike me as all that big compared to the sincerity of the film. Hell, after The box and the director’s cut of Southern talesI’m actually curious what Kelly has in store for her sequel proposal.
There is so much more I could say about this film as it is one of those rare works of art that never ceases to give, but the beauty of Donnie Darko is precisely about abandoning narrative theories and enjoying a moody ride through the horrors of adolescence. To end on another quote from Stephen King: âLet’s face it. No high school kid feels like he’s fitting in. You might not have dealt with doomsday prophecies or giant bunny costumes, but at some point in your life you’ve certainly felt the eerie loneliness that plagued Donnie as a teenager. That’s why it’s still my favorite teenage movie twenty years later.