Precocious teenage girls are movie mainstays for a few reasons. They tend to be cute, for starters. They give young audiences someone to identify with and perhaps envy, because the movie girls get to say and do things that would get their real-life admirers grounded at best, imprisoned at worst. We have our favorites, of course, going all the back to The Bad Seed, The Children’s Hour and the original Lolita. More recently, we’ve been perversely charmed by sexually manipulative antiheroines such as Christina Ricci in The Opposite of Sex, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Happy Endings, Mina Suvari in American Beauty and Ellen Page in Juno. These characters have little in common except that they were captivating on screen and well treated by their screenplays.
As often as not, the genre requires the young woman to be a fish out of water, perhaps relocated from a big town she likes to a small one she despises. Her story, like that of male counterparts in similar youth-market efforts, is designed to put the “coming” in “coming of age.” You know the bit: Sexual awakening is an awkward, confusing process fraught with physical and emotional peril. But there’s a fine line between useful familiarity and plain old cliché. Unfortunately, Daydream Nation can’t decide whether it wants to be radical, routine or ridiculous.
The first line of dialog, presented as the central female’s narration, is way too familiar: “The year this story takes place is the year nearly everything happened to me.”
Her last lines include a lame redundancy: “That was the year that everything happened. I’m not saying if it was good or bad.” And then the final revelation, again in voiceover: “Things don’t need to last forever to be perfect.” If you get your philosophy from Twitter feeds and your literature from the young adult section, Daydream Nation is your latte venti.
A Canadian production from first-time writer-director Michael Goldbach, this laconic black comedy – or is it a grimly satirical drama? – centers on alienated, hyper-intelligent cynic Caroline Wexler, played to the smirky-sensitive hilt by rising star Kat Dennings. Yep, the girl who played Natalie Portman’s pal in Thor and who was Norah in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist shows stellar solo chops in a demanding role that she makes worth seeing despite Goldbach’s scattershot script.
When her father moves from a real city to a bucolic British Columbian town, Caroline wastes little time learning to hate the place. Her fellow high school students are mainly moronic druggies, and the only interesting man in town is, of course, a handsome English teacher named Barry, played by vague Paul Newman lookalike Josh Lucas. But Caroline isn’t going to settle for just one messy affair. She has to set up a triangle with the one student who isn’t a complete jerk, but rather a supremely insecure inner-poet type named Thurston (Reece Thompson). Gee, maybe somebody will emerge rather unhappily from this. And maybe someone who watches it will care. We regret that we were not among them. Of course, the rest of the cruel kids can’t wait to gossip, to imagine wrong things and generally wreak psychic havoc on their most vulnerable peers.
Oh yeah, did we mention there’s a silly subplot about a serial killer? Mystery or metaphor – you make the call.
The 1080/60p high-def presentation has a widescreen 1.78:1 transfer, presented in AVC at a bit rate that varies between 25 and 30 Mpbs. The transfer varies appropriately from sepia-toned intimate interiors to glowing exteriors and well-defined night scenes. There’s more honest emotion in the visuals than in the dialog, which leaves hope that filmmaker Goldbach has more and better work in store for us
The English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 at 48Hz is more than adequate to convey teenage mumblers as well as poppy soundtrack singles. (The film’s title comes from a 1988 Sonic Youth album.) Subtitles come in English and Spanish.
Behind the Scenes of Daydream Nation (6:41) Making-of featurette regurgitates brief summaries of what we’ve just seen, with actors and directors desperately doing their duty by attempting a positive spin. Goldbach explains his inspiration for the story: He visited his old high school at the tender age of 26. Zzzzzzzzzz.
Trailers: Four of them, none for this movie. Kill the Irishman looks like fun.
It’s tough to tell a teen-angst tale these days without resorting to cliché. While this effort is confused and self-conscious to a fault, it does avoid most of the genre’s obvious conventions. A superior cast helps, too.