Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko ★★★★

Film Club #4

This is probably the most conflicted I've felt about a movie that I sincerely love.

Unlike most of my peers, I didn't get around to seeing this until about a year ago - 10 years too late. Still, I couldn't understand why the tides had turned against it, and why most of the emo kids who loved it back in the day abandoned it, writing it off as pretentious drudgery.

From a technical aspect, I understand that it's not a flawless film. There's a lot of shots that contribute nothing to the story beyond the fact that they look cool. The pacing is more than a a bit off: Gretchen's relationship with Donnie is kind of DoA until the second half, and even then, it's never as fully developed as it should've been; Ms. Pomeroy is never flesh out enough to really understand; a lot of the allusions are just a way to distract, and it's little more than allusions as substitution for subtext instead of an attempt at creating actual subtext. It's one of those films that I know had a long editing process, but I can't help feeling like it needed to be cut even further. At 90 minutes, it would've been a masterpiece. As it stands, this can sometimes feel like a high-budget student film made by an extremely talented student who you also know is getting a big head because all his professors praise him a bit too much.

That's not what made this complicated, though. It's certainly what held me back the first time, but on a rewatch, it's negligible.

What really frustrates me now is the portrayal of mental health treatment, mixed with a guilt specific to Catholic school. I won't go into too much detail on why the film doesn't flesh these themes out enough and why that turns a superficial reading posing as high-brow intellectualism into preachy plebian triteness, but...the presentation of these themes really feels like Kelly only read the Wikipedia articles. This is also true of the time travel plot - and if you think hard enough about it, you can't ignore how spotty it is theoretically - but time travel is mendable. Mental health is not. Viewing mental health through a lens of catholic guilt is not.

It's not like Kelly does a bad job with them, but he needed to dig into those themes a bit more to give them real substance. Instead, by leaving them undercooked, we get a film that at times feels like it's romanticizing not taking your meds, or saying to trust in god's omnipotence in that strange way Catholics sometimes suspend their beliefs so much they basically become Christian Scientists, or to accept your cross and refuse to fix/address your issues because god gave you this cross to bear so you have to bear it, regardless of the outcome. I feel like all these readings are both there and not there - unfortunately, had Kelly come down on one side or the other, he would've made a stronger film. But that's the student film aspect again. He wanted all possible readings to be right, and that's just impossible, and makes it a weaker film when you start to pull it apart thematically.

Which is why I think a lot of people ended up disavowing it eventually.

(Plus, Kelly's idea of "digging into the material" is overworking the mythology, and to be honest, while I find a lot of the DC to be more than tolerable (even if I do have issues with a few things) it adds nothing. It doesn't subtract anything, like most people think, but in some ways, that's even worse.)

Truthfully, though, when this film hits, it fucking hits. Beneath the chaff, the main storyline is really engaging, and even if I want the themes to go a bit deeper, it's not like I'm left with nothing to pull apart. The performances are all wonderful. Most of all, this is a really great early example of treating mental health in movies with respect and realistic gravity.

It's not an understatement to call this an emo classic. I think for any of us who lived through the mid-to-late 2000s, this film feels like a reprieve from the "I wish my lawn was emo so it would cut itself" bullshit that a lot of young people who didn't know how to talk about their mental health had to endure on a daily basis back then. Even though I didn't get around to this until I was well out of my emo phase [if you believe I ever left], Donnie Darko still gives me a feeling like I'm not entirely alone, like I'm not the only one suffering.

Before I knew how to talk about things, I used to describe specific moments in my life as feeling like I trapped myself in a glass box, and while I can see and hear everything that's happening, I can't escape the box to actually take control. There's a scene where Frank traps Donnie behind what is essentially a glass box, and even now that I have the means to seek out help and have the right language to discuss these feelings, I still relate to this scene on a base level. To me, it's the most accurate portrayal of what it feels like to suffer a breakdown when you're a teenager - you don't know what to do, and it feels like you're forced to watch an alien version of yourself fuck up your life while you just pound at the walls of a glass box you've trapped yourself inside.

Donnie Darko might have its slew of issues. There might be a version in my head that might work better, fix the pacing, flesh out the themes, and even handle its topics in a way that doesn't have the potential to be misread and misinterpreted by teenagers. But all that ignores the good, and there's just so much good in this film. I might know why it's problematic, but I can't look away from the screen. I'm positive that there is still a ton of people out there who need this film, if anything, to just see someone on screen who's also having a hard time accepting that they need to take care of their mental health. It's certainly what I needed 10 years ago.

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