MCN Blogs
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Review: Daydream Nation

Daydream Nation, a quirky little film that generated a decent amount of buzz at Toronto last fall and is playing now in limited release, is a frequently funny, sexy, trip of a film in spite of a tendency to feel uneven more than it should. Chalk it up to freshman jitters, maybe, but I felt frequently while watching the film that first-time writer-director Michael Goldbach didn’t quite have the self-confidence to know when to play a hand all the way out and when to reel it back in just a notch — or when to just ruthlessly kill those idea babies and let them go.

One of the ways in which this is evident is the presence of a great deal of expository voice-over, which tends to be used to make sure we understand, by being told, various ideas we should understand by being shown. What makes much of the voice-over even more perplexing is that it frequently explains things that don’t need explaining, and does so with an ever-so-slightly bored, hipper-than-thou tone which tends to toe the line between “all right, somewhat engaging, I guess” and into the ever-popular “precious.”

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “twee,” but there are times when the use of voice-over here really does border on twee-ness. There are other times when the voice-over wants to be smarter and more relevant than it is, too … or where it drops a hint of something interesting and then fails to pick it back up again.

There are bits and pieces, too, that could have played as stronger societal commentary and critique with a little more thought and awareness. For instance: it’s a frequent occurrence in this film for the teenage set to be seen dulling their senses with whatever chemicals they can get their hands on (or referencing said chemicals when they’re not): Alcohol, pot, cooking spray, glue, date rape drugs, — whatever these kids can get their hands on to take the edge off life’s overwhelmingly boring routine, fear of facing the future, what have you — they ingest it without thought or care and with very little consequence.

For me, though — both as a once-upon-a-time teen who ingested my own share of mind-obliterating substances back in the day, and a mother of teens today — this would have felt more relevant and honest if Goldbach had also shown us, maybe, the adults in these kids lives modeling examples of blotting out reality in their own ways, but the grownups here are (for the most part) squeaky clean. What ho! No alcohol or pot habits among the adults in this town? No frequent popping of prescription pills? No martini playdates or margarita-fueled Bunco nights for the stay-at-home moms tethered to toddlers and baby slings? No chain smoking, no late-night binge eating, no secret booze stashes or porn stashes and even Zingers stashes? Please.

Then there’s the recurring idea of an industrial fire (represented by computer-generated, never-ending smoke) that won’t go out, which I guess is supposed to play into the idea that the teenagers of this small, picture-perfect (on the surface) town are — like most teenagers — filled with angst and ennui and overwhelmed by “the world is going to end soon anyhow so what’s the point?” apathy. This is the kind of conceit that works when its executed particularly cleverly (as in the constantly burning house in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York) and just feels overly precious and irritating when it’s not as well-drawn (as in here). And as an aside, most of the teens in the film feel kind of like what one imagines transplanted Williamsburg hipsters used to be before they left their various Midwest small towns to move to New York and ended up settling in Brooklyn because they couldn’t afford Manhattan.

But enough about the nit-picky things, and onto what’s good about Daydream Nation — because, in all fairness, there is rather a lot to like here, especially as compared to any number of indie rom-coms.

Smartass, sexual (and sexualized), wise-beyond-their-years teenage girls are pretty common in indie fare, and it’s very often the case that good casting is imperative to rescuing the writing of said characters from being overly flat. Juno had the very likable Ellen Page, Dirty Girl and Kaboom were graced by the equally appealing Juno Temple, Adventureland had Kristen Stewart (who, not coincidentally, also remains the best thing about the Twilight films), its long-lost twin sibling Splinterheads had Rachael Taylor as the quirky Galaxy.

Daydream Nation carries on this tradition with the very smart and sexy Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Thor) as smart, sexy Caroline Wexler. And it’s a good thing it does, because Dennings has to carry a lot of this film, and she has the chops (and the looks) to pull it off. When Dennings is on-screen, she shines enough to pretty much obliterate what flaws the film does have, to the extent that they almost (but not quite) don’t matter.

Caroline’s the old-beyond-her-years daughter of a widowed father who’s moved her, for reasons that aren’t really explained, away from an unnamed “big city” to this pathetically boring, hopelessly dull, conservative small town. Caroline sizes up the teenage male population of her new school, finds it utterly lacking, and immediately locks radar onto her handsome-ish (“ish” because he’s played by Josh Lucas, an actor about whom I tend to feel very “ish”), 30-something teacher, Barry.

Before you can say, “Hey, remember Patrick Wilson in Hard Candy?” the two are locked in a torrid sexual affair in which it quickly becomes clear that the student, not the teacher, is the one in charge. Fortunately for Barry (though perhaps somewhat less so for the viewer), Goldbach doesn’t have in mind anything quite as fucked up (or quite as seering) as Hard Candy here. Barry’s balls may be on the line when it comes to messing around with Caroline, but it’s purely in the figurative sense.

(Goldbach does play with us a little in that regard, through both an under-explored subplot concerning a mysterious, white-suited serial killer of pretty young girls and the plot of Barry’s semi-autobiographical novel, and this is one instance where I wish he’d given a bit more rather than reeling it in.)

Barry’s paranoid about getting caught boning his pupil, so he suggests Caroline date the awkward, endearing Thurston (Reece Thompson, adorable as a beagle puppy) as a cover for their bad romance. Unfortunately for Barry, Caroline falls for Thurston, complicating matters. There’s a neat little subplot concerning Caroline’s dad, Thurston and Thurston’s mom (Andie Macdowell, perfect here) that unfortunately doesn’t get as much play as it should.

Lucas is given the task of portraying Barry, who’s given some layering to make him more complex and interesting, albeit with a rather sharp left turn in character arc that feels a bit underdeveloped. Lucas pretty ably keeps it reined in; perhaps we should be more generous and say that Goldbach keeps him reined in, but in any case Barry is a character that could have been way over the top, and he’s played with a bit more subtlety here than he otherwise might have been.

But Caroline, oh Caroline … now she is an intriguing character, intriguingly played by Dennings, who’s one of the more promising young actresses to be getting take-noticed via indie fare over the past couple years. This character could have been, really, smugly insufferable in the wrong hands. It’s the touch of underlying vunerability that Dennings brings to the role, and a couple of clever, well-directed moments in the script, that made me sit up and see Daydream Nation as a film worth taking notice of, in spite of its flaws.

There’s a real subtle intelligence and understanding of flow and balance in storytelling in book-ended scenes of Caroline, smart and cocky, putting a judgmental, plain girl in her place when the latter dares to call her a slut, and a later scene of Caroline revealing her own vulnerability to being perceived as exactly that. When you see the first scene, it presents an image of Caroline as blisteringly smart and competent and aware of exactly who she is and where she’s going; when she repeats almost the same words verbatim in a later scene, you can feel her fragility.

Caroline is, in many ways, a young, motherless, very sexy teenager trying very hard to play the role of the sophisticated, sexually liberated, Dorothy Parker-esque broad and almost, but not quite, succeeding. (There’s even a reference to the Algonquin Round Table tossed in there, along with a hilariously appropriate toss-out of one word, delivered dryly: “Polankski.”)

Forget the end-of-days symbolism of the endless industrial fire, and the out-of-control teen house parties, the endless drug use and apathetic teens, and the dreadful, in-your-face editing cut at the end that almost jars you out of liking what you’ve just seen: It’s Caroline, and the way Dennings plays her, and the complexity of her relationships with both Barry and Thurston, that really makes Daydream Nation a film worth watching. Those things alone, also, make Goldbach a director I want to see more of in the future.

The other stuff — the self-confidence of knowing when to push harder and when to step back, the finesse of being sharp and witty and observatory of human nature without dipping into cliche … those things can be learned over time and experience. The keen understanding of how to build a fascinating central character, though, and that ear for flow of story, of plot and dialogue, are harder to learn — and Goldbach has those things pretty well in hand here.

All in all, Daydream Nation is a pretty terrific film more than half the time, and at least fair-to-middling for most of the rest, and if I didn’t see such promise in Goldbach as a writer-director, I probably wouldn’t be as picky-picky as I have been here. There’s some real potential in him that shines through this film, and there’s only a handful of new directors I’d say that about in a given year. Aza Jacobs, Jay Duplass, Barry Jenkins, Jeff Nichols, Lance Hammer, Aaron Katz, Shane Carruth, Ramin Bahrani, Kelly Reichardt … they all had that undefinable “something” about their early work that made you (or at least me) want to see more of what they had in them. Goldbach, with this solid first effort, has that too.

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