Title: Daydream Nation
Directed By: Michael Goldbach
Starring: Kat Dennings, Reece Thompson, Josh Lucas, Andie MacDowell, Rachel Blanchard, Natasha Calis, Quinn Lord, Calum Worthy, Ted Whittall
Clearly we tend to get the same sorts of films over and over again for a reason; they work. Then again, that doesn’t give anyone an excuse to just use and reuse at will. There has to be a balance; we need to get what we came for, but also experience something new. Well, Daydream Nation does that in a number of ways through writer-director Michael Goldbach’s script and shooting style and Kat Dennings, all of which know exactly how to satisfy our itch for a teen angst dramedy, but infuse it with a unique edge, too.
Caroline Wexler (Dennings) is not happy about relocating from the big city to a dull small town. Then again, there is quite a bit going on there from intense teen drug use to a massive local industrial fire and even a serial killer on the loose. But, no, that’s not enough for Caroline. She opts to spice things up even more by taking a class paper far too seriously and not only naming Monica Lewinsky the historical figure she most admires, but following in her footsteps by seducing her teacher, Mr. Anderson (Josh Lucas).
Seemingly madly in love, Caroline and Mr. Anderson decide they’ve got to cover their tracks with fake relationships, Mr. Anderson with the school gym teacher, Ms. Budge (Rachel Blanchard), and Caroline with an awkward and drug-loving yet honest boy named Thurston (Reece Thompson). However, for Caroline, it’s her falsified romance that might bear the most truth.
So much of Daydream Nation is incredibly comparable to the high school comedy and dramas we’ve seen before, the film opening in a very similar fashion to Mean Girls with Caroline pointing out the must-know folks roaming the halls. However, beyond the quintessential weekend parties and handful of teenaged character traits that exist across the board, Daydream Nation is a different breed of coming-of-age piece entirely.
While we have seen high school overdoses and student-teacher relationships before, it’s the way in which first-time feature director Michael Goldbach structures his piece that sets the film apart. The story isn’t exactly linear. It does have a beginning, middle and end, but uses unconventional narrative tactics to get from point to point. Typically this happens through a visual and voiceover overlap that evokes a dreamlike or flashback sensation, suggesting that Caroline really is telling us this story from memory instantly putting the audience in her head and on her side.
There are also highly stylized editing techniques including digital skywriting, title cards and, perhaps you can call it scene splicing. The filmmakers cleverly fuse a scene in a science classroom with one in a boy’s kitchen during which he and his friends use any household product necessary to get high. Something as simple as opening a door is spun into an amusing montage pitting each of the film’s characters’ intentions for the evening against one another. This is exactly what Daydream Nation thrives on; the clarity that this is the result of a stroke of a particular director’s brush.
The individuality is evident in the script, too, albeit, not quite as much. There are quite a few brilliant scenes of dialogue, most notably one shared between Caroline and a classmate who doesn’t approve of Caroline’s behavior. Not only is Denning’s monologue highly original, but it’s incredibly funny yet horrifyingly vicious at the same time. Then, Goldbach has Caroline react in a way we’d never expect; she breaks down and cries.
But, of course, much of the power in this moment also comes from Dennings. This role was made for her. She’s got the necessary comedic timing as well as the ability to turn up the drama, keeping the tone of Daydream Nation rather dark, but still maintaining the comedic undertone. Thompson, meanwhile, makes for the perfect counterpart boasting similar talents in addition to an intriguing vulnerability. Lucas is the only one that falls short, but it’s difficult to pinpoint whether the culprit is his performance or stems from a weakly developed character arc. Mr. Anderson goes from a confident, hotshot teacher to crippled maniac and the transition is tough to digest. While Dennings has established Caroline as a character that can lose it on a teenage level from time to time, Lucas never hints that Anderson is capable of the same until it actually happens on a rather extreme level.
However, by the time this shift happens, we’re well into the film and well engaged with the whole scenario, letting this misstep harmlessly slide right by. Overall, Daydream Nation is a fantastically enjoyable and refreshing piece, nestling itself right between standard Hollywood high school hoopla and more unconventional explorations of teen troubles. It keeps just enough of the old to satisfy those just looking for some mainstream convention, yet also boasts enough authorial expressivity to set it apart from the lot.
By Perri Nemiroff