Oh Canada. Our crazy neighbors to the north. With some reasonable exceptions, they aren’t too different then America except that they operate on a much smaller scale. The same goes for their film industry, which is vibrant and healthy, but not nearly as celebrated as ours. Look on the back of a small, indie title and there is a halfway decent chance that you will see a logo of a red leaf that announces it is from Canada. You might be surprised. Anyway, the latest offering from these Canucks who borrow a little American star power is ‘Daydream Nation.’
Caroline (Kat Dennings) and her father have moved from the big city to a small town just in time for her senior year of high school. She is not amused. What she finds is a school full of pot-smoking boys and shallow girls.
Caroline takes a liking to her teacher, Mr. Anderson (Josh Lucas) while one of the slightly more coherent boys, Thurston (Reece Thompson) falls for her. The uneventful surroundings play host to the love triangle which complicates everyone’s life.
Writer/director Michael Goldblach has an obvious affinity for the band Sonic Youth. The film’s title shares the name of quite possibly their best known album and one of the most important characters is named Thurston. Way to be covert. Seriously though, that’s not a flaw, but that is some devotion.
The central theme here is boredom and the often self destructive ways that people go about dealing with it. That probably should have been explored in a little more detail because it had some serious potential to create natural conflict and interpersonal drama. Instead, we get a barely developed subplot about a serial killer lurking around in the background of the narrative and a slow burning fire off in the distance. Both points are to meant to establish the fact that the setting is a less than ideal location but they don’t add anything more than that.
Goldblach’s script has some good qualities (mostly in the dialog), but the story careens wildly about with little interest in telling a linear story. It can be okay to jump around in the time line, but doing so much of that so early in the plot is just disorienting.
Some directorial decisions reveal a modest budget which creates a whole new set of criteria as far as overcoming such constraints. An out of body experience moment is memorable, but sometimes the cinematography and look of the film comes across as more of a made for TV movie. Goldblach also seems to have gotten caught up with the current trend of including bold text on the screen to help orient the viewers/make semi-witty commentary when introducing a scene. It doesn’t really add much except that it does show some effort above and beyond the call of duty. He also indulges in some amateurish camera tricks like fast forward/slow motion and pausing the screen to jump to another scene at another time.
It’s also troubling that certain conflicts in the plot get wrapped up simultaneously and quite hastily. Some of them are satisfying, but others feel forced.
Dennings is her usual delightful self, and she elevates the material. No actress plays a sarcastic, culturally aware young woman quite like her (fine, Ellen Page and Emma Stone deserve some respect here as well). The time will come when she won’t be able to be a convincing high school student, but that will only lead to more varied roles. As a troubled teacher, Josh Lucas is very good early in the film, but his character descends into a melodramatic mess late in the game. Must all aspiring writers be so troubled and insecure? As Thurston’s mom, Andie MacDowell has very little to do and a possible romance between her and Caroline’s father is hinted at but completely ignored after one scene.
Speaking of ignored, in a school full of teens, it’s odd how few characters actually have speaking roles. Besides Thurston, a few of his friends and one semi-rival to Caroline, almost the entire student body is relegated to the background. No one else has a speaking part? That really is a repressed small town.
Special features include: a look behind the scenes/interviews and a look at other titles available from Anchor Bay.
‘Daydream Nation’ isn’t a terrible first effort by any means. It has a theme that plenty of viewers can identify with, an engaging star, and a lot of strong dialog. Some narrative flaws and budget constraints can be learning experiences for a young filmmaker, in hindsight.
What we are left with is an average teen drama with little glimmers of comedy and suspense. If you keep your expectations in check, you might not mind that you’re watching an identity crisis unfold on screen.
Rated R 98 minutes 2011
When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!