Monday, 4 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 18 - Donnie Darko

#83 - Donnie Darko:

I see and hear a lot of the same responses from people on the internet whenever someone says they hated their favourite movie – you didn’t understand it. To me that says that you can’t enjoy a movie if you don’t understand it. I guess that this movie right here is probably the biggest contradiction to that statement there is. When I first watched Donnie Darko, I didn’t really understand it. And you know what, I still loved it.

As the title suggests, the main character is Donnie Darko (well Donald if you consider yourself a full name basis type of person), a pretty disturbed teenager who sleepwalks and has “emotional problems”. He’s on medication and seeing a therapist to deal with these problems. Among these problems is his imaginary friend Frank – a guy in a rabbit suit who tells him the world is going to end. Things also pick up for Donnie when he starts dating a new girl in town. Oh, and it’s set in 1988.

Actually there’s a lot more happening in the film, but it would take a lot of unnecessary rambling to explain everything that happens. It’s the kind of film where the main character is not the only one with a story going on. The film doesn’t really have a main plot and it kind of just moves along without a direction. But it works. That makes it basically a French New Wave film that’s actually good. I love how real the film feels – well as real as a film about the end of the world can be. The 80s setting is a bit strange but director Richard Kelly says he set it in 1988 because very few films have been set there and he didn’t feel comfortable creating a film about present day teenagers, feeling that he wouldn’t get it right. The 80s setting is actually kind of fun, just with all the music and cultural references including a scene where Donnie and his friends discuss what the Smurfs get up to when the cameras aren’t rolling.

The characters in this film are all pretty fun to watch as they’re all written in a fascinating way. Aside from Donnie, his parents are actually kind and nurturing thus eliminating the typical teen angst from the film. There’s his party-animal sister and his kid sister who’s in a school dance group. We have a couple of teachers that are interesting to watch such as the English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) who teaches material “too risqué” for the conservative school, and the science teacher Kenneth Monnitoff who gives Donnie his information on time travel. On the other hand we have the sinfully annoying Kitty Farmer, a conservative bitchy teacher who tries to stifle free thinking in the students by forcing them to watch a motivational speaker Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). And finally there’s Donnie’s girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone), a new transfer who’s in the Witness Protection Program. That sounds like a three-hour type of deal to get all that character development in but the film is only about 90 minutes and none of that character development feels shoe-horned in.

Moving on from the characters, we have the actors playing them. Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular character is fantastic. I guess Donnie isn’t your typical teenager so playing him would be a challenge for any young actor. Jake is great with getting across how Donnie feels about certain issues, like when he’s standing up to the oppressive Mrs Farmer and he’s also hilarious in the scenes where his therapist hypnotises him (he cries because his parents wouldn’t get him “Hungry Hungry Hippos” for Christmas). And speaking of Mrs Farmer, she is indeed written to be hated but I think only Beth Grant could have brought her to life like that. She deserves a lot of props. Another underrated performance in this goes to Drew Barrymore. I’m not necessarily a fan of hers, but I think this is one of her more entertaining characters. For example, when Gretchen arrives in the class for her first day she says “sit next to the boy you think is the cutest”, who knew she could play a cool teacher without taking her top off? The rest of the actors do a good job as well, each bringing their characters to life. And believe it or not, Ashley Tisdale has a tiny role in the scene where Jim Cunningham comes to speak at the school.

There are a ton of cool scenes to watch in this film, with my favourites being the long take shots of all the characters in the school at the very start of the film. It’s sped up a little too and is a pretty cool way to introduce the school. Then there’s another scene where Donnie sees a whole stream of time portals (it makes sense in the film) branching off from various people in his Halloween party, as well as the scenes intercut with him and Gretchen doing it. Because of the surreal tone of the film, you get a few more trippy scenes to add atmosphere to the thing especially the infamous end sequence where loads of the characters wake up in the middle of the night set to Gary Jules’s “Mad World”. As much as I hate to praise it, this scene borrows heavily from the French film Three Colours Blue, which is not on my list by the way.

I guess you can see why a lot of people don’t really like the film. It’s pretty hard to get and you’ll probably have to watch it a couple of times to understand the whole thing, but I personally love that a lot of the stuff doesn’t make sense. It’s a pretty cool trip through the world of teen angst with a surreal twist added in. I personally don’t have anything to criticise about it. And if I did, I’d probably get a stream of messages explaining said scene or line and how it fits into the main storyline. Until next time and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.

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