Kat Dennings made a huge impression on me in NICK AND NORA'S INFINITE PLAYLIST. Her pouty self-confidence reminded me of a brunette Gwen Stefani with less flexibility but better comic timing. She's great at conveying intelligence, but vulnerability isn't totally in her wheelhouse. I was anxious to see her new film, because she's front and center, thus I thought she would get to display many more shades.
DAYDREAM NATION, while visually stunning, is a mostly unsatisfying mish mash of everything from DONNIE DARKO to TWIN PEAKS, JUNO, TWILIGHT and even a little POISON IVY. Self-conscious and overly referential to things teenagers today would never cite (Sonic Youth? Roman Polanski? Atom Egoyan? Really?) the film bites off way more than it can chew. It would have been enough to be about a teenage city girl who moves to a small town and upends everyone's value systems. It would have played like a less frenetic HEATHERS. But writer/director Michael Goldbach didn't want to stop there. He added a serial killer, toxic pollution, mental illness, drugs, car accidents, a slightly time-bending structure and cutesy chapter titles to the mix, out what? Boredom? I knew we were in trouble when our protagonist, who comes across as smug, amoral, and quite unlikeable at times, narrates the film with all of its somewhat dead end subplots and gets to her own character at about the 40 minute mark. It took Goldbach 40 minutes to realize we had a main character who was a cipher until that point in the movie. Dennings, however, won me over a little later when she confronts a fellow student in the bathroom and fills her in on her miserable future. Condescending material, but potently delivered.
In fact, there are so many appealing moments, that I stayed with it. I enjoyed so many of the characters, especially Reece Daniel Thompson as her down-on-his-luck boyfriend and Josh Lucas as the teacher with whom she carries on an illicit affair. Lucas is fun until his character spins off the rails, because the script told him to, and because this film isn't just about coming-of-age, it's about how a town can rot your insides and make you crazy. It's about how life is beautiful if you look at it from the right angle. It's about powering through the muck in order to come out of it a better, changed, grown-up. It's just too much.
The serial killer subplot is truly odd, as I assumed we had a juicy whodunit framing the film....but that, along with an unsatisfying drug-induced seizure storyline, a mother (Andie MacDowell) who pursues Dennings' father, and the deaths of several students, are strands kind of left dangling quite randomly. Had Goldbach focused on making Dennings a vulnerable character behind the strong mask, he would have had a much stronger film. Too many plot strands, an everything but the kitchen sink approach to storytelling and an incredibly uneventful and unsatisfying ending get in his way. This is no cookie cutter film, so I give it a lot of credit. I just wish it had a clearer focus.