Sunday, May 15, 2011

Daydream Nation

There's a wistful and looming sense of danger in Daydream Nation, a well-made art house noir from writer\director Michael Goldbach.  There's also a massive assemblage of ideas, tones and narratives that both add and divert to the very strengths of the film.  Sadly, this dream turns out to be yet another precious indie oddity that succumbs to clever screenwriting tics, but there is something to this eerie, romantic teen comedy that can't be totally written off either.  Much of the credit deserves to go to leading lady Kat Demmings, whose almost graceful deadpan humor grounds the movie from the start.  Playing a bored teenage Lolita-type, both holier-than-thou and messed up tart (her hero is Monica Lewinsky), she makes a compelling flirt and plays Caroline, a newbie in a backwoods town; she's a postmodern femme fatale, albeit with all too clever, nearly Diablo Cody-ian dialogue-- best line: "This town has more incest in it than an Atom Egoyan movie," which might provoke agreeable guffaws to the three people you get the joke.  It's the layering of subplots and side characters that do a disservice to what could have been a crafty and nutty art house variant of high school angst and David Lynch level absurdity-- for instance, a random industrial fire burns in the background for atmosphere.

The story is fairly simple, before it gets really weird-- bored Caroline comes on to her hottie teacher Barry (Josh Lucas), a lonely wannabe novelist and begins an inappropriate tryst with little difficulty.  There's also a sweet, albeit messed up stoner boy pining for Caroline, an odd young man with some baggage named Thurston (Reece Thompson), and we're set for a quiet, but affecting love triangle.  However, there's also a serial killer hacking off pretty young things, a high school girl Caroline is giving an awful complex to for no apparent reason than her own amusement, an indictment of teenage drug use, and a little grown-up flirting for Andie MacDowell, who plays Thurston's riled up mother.  When the film settles and focuses on the nice, gentle crush between Caroline and Thurston, Daydream Nation feels pleasantly calming and even a tad ethereal, and there's a nice awkward chemistry between Demmings and Thompson that feels achingly natural, despite the least naturalistic dialogue to hit art house cinemas in at least a minute.  When the film focuses on Barry, it's unsettling because the more screen time he gets, the more we see just how much a nutbag he really is-- Lucas gives a high wire performance that unfortunately turns sour before any affection can really be bestowed.  The problem is there's too much stuff diluting the simple, dreamy pleasures-- too many subplots, too many uninteresting characters, too much gloom and arbitrary strangeness; that the film is only 96 minutes is fairly startling-- Lynch had less going on is a season of Twin Peaks.

The most striking element is Demmings, featured here in a film few will ever see, as well as a featured player in Thor, a film that everyone will see.  Hopefully this rare comic talent with genuine presence will be given a proper showcase and this Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist alum will scale the heights of precocious projects like this and attain the mainstream affection see richly deserves.  C+

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