Donnie Darko

Every once in a while you watch a movie that really changes the way you think about something. Perhaps it's the nature of consciousness--Being John Malkovich did that for me--or perhaps it's the nature of cinema--The Cell, for example.

Donnie Darko has forced me to rethink more than just a simple idea. It changed the way I view science fiction, changed my view on some mental health issues, changed the way I see movie families, and changed the way I see all movies in general. I've been slowly testing the 'arthouse' scene for a while now, and movies like Pi and Happiness have made me think quite a bit, but Donnie Darko did more than that--it shows how character-driven drama can work together with a tight plot to make something much greater than the sum of its parts. And it shows that you don't need a hundred million dollar budget to do things right.

Donnie Darko is not a normal kid. He sleepbikes. He's depressed, and the medication he takes and the therapy he participates in don't seem to be helping him very much. His mother and father love him very much, and there's the typical mostly-friendly sibling rivalry, but something is definitely wrong in his life.

Then the jet engine crashes through the house into his room. He's not there, because a large bunny rabbit suit named Frank called him out of the house. Frank tells Donnie that there are only twenty-eight days left before the world ends.

With these not-so-humble beginnings, Donnie Darko launches into some of the most enthralling cinema I've ever seen. A new girl comes to school. She calls him weird, and means it as a compliment. Donnie asks her out. His English teacher actually has them reading difficult works, ones that force them to see the meaning behind the words. The health teacher has them watch infomercial-style tapes on controlling fear that are right out of the Eighties. The youngest sister is in a girl dancing troupe named Sparkle Motion.

And, behind it all, looms the end of the world.

It's hard to talk about many of the more poignant scenes without giving the movie away, but there are touches in it that make it shine all the brighter. The discussion on the origin of Smurfette seems right out of my youth, a juvenile battle-of-the-wills that seems playful on the surface but is really some sort of primitive power play made manifest in the Information Age. There are a bunch of scenes in the movie that seem out of place--people say things coming out of nowhere--but they all end up making sense in the end. There is a sense of impending doom that pervades the entire movie, but it's not a black doom that makes it unbearable; it's almost an inevitability. Donnie's quest to find out just how to stop the world from ending takes him places you'd never expect, and the ride is worth the price of admission.

There are other things as well. The family is absolutely fantastic, easily the most . . . resonant family I've ever seen in a movie. It's not because they're like my family--they're not--but because they have none of the forced movie tropes. The dad jokes around with Donnie; the mom is anguished because of her son's problems. At one point he asks her what it's like having a crazy son like him. She responds, "It's wonderful." I tear up every time I see that scene. This is how people really are, people who care. They're not mindless automatons or paper-thin renditions of cliche characters. They are people.

There is a scene near the very end of the movie, one of those ensemble cast pans where you see everyone involved doing whatever it is they're doing at that time. I cry every time I see it. Just as something in the back of their mind is tickling, telling them something far greater than any of them is going on, something in the back of my mind tickles.

It tells me the same thing.

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Last Updated: 2002.09.08.2131