by Jason Coffman
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The “coming of age” film is a well-worn trope by now, and every generation of filmmakers seems determined to put their stamp on it. Sometimes this results in strange and interesting combinations of genres and films that genuinely have something to say, such as the recent Deadgirl and Make-Out with Violence (both 2008). While nowhere near as bleak and difficult as those films, writer/director Michael Goldbach’s debut feature Daydream Nation obviously aspires to join the ranks of artful coming-of-age films, but is unfortunately hampered by a few major issues.
Kat Denning narrates and stars as Caroline Wexler, a teenager who has moved with her father (Tedd Whittall) to a small town following the death of her mother. Caroline is snarky and sarcastic, and makes no attempt to hide her contempt for her fellow students, the school they attend and the town in which they live. The only thing at school that catches her interest is young English teacher Barry Anderson (Josh Lucas), a struggling novelist dating the school gym teacher Ms. Budge (Rachel Blanchard). After seducing Mr. Anderson, Caroline begins dating her classmate Thurston (Reece Thompson) as a cover, but soon she finds her feelings complicating the situation.
This story is told through vignettes punctuated by title cards, each section presented somewhat out of order. For example, the audience meets Thurston well after Caroline does, so she must go back and fill in his back story. This is probably done as a representation of Caroline’s scattered thoughts, presented in a type of diary format where everything is filled in as necessary, but it often just feels like a way to inject a bit of mystery or drama where it would otherwise be lacking. A parallel storyline about a serial killer leaving the bodies of teenage girls around the town is barely touched on except when it conveniently dovetails with Caroline’s stories, and its resolution late in the film feels like a cheat.
This reliance on coincidence is one of Daydream Nation’s major failings, but perhaps its most glaring shortcoming is the fact that Caroline is not a compelling narrator. It is well into the film before she finally stops and says it’s time that we learn about her, but even then we don’t really learn anything that actually tells us who she really is. Caroline is a completely self-absorbed narrator who, ironically, never really talks about herself. When she becomes angry with another character late in the film for not knowing anything about her, it’s hard not to identify with the other character. If the audience has had to listen to her interior monologue for the last hour and we hardly know anything about her, how is anyone else supposed to?
Daydream Nation is an odd beast. Despite its major flaws, it is often beautifully photographed, and there are a few nice surreal touches at the periphery of the film’s action. Still, in trying to make every character likeable (or at least sympathetic), Goldbach has strangely removed them from the point at which the audience can identify with them. Even the unmasked serial killer is presented at such a distance from their actions that it is difficult to connect the person to the bodies they left behind, and Josh Lucas’s teacher is handily redeemed despite spending much of the film engaged in reprehensible behavior. Perhaps that is the ultimate example of the problem with Daydream Nation: by the end, you may feel sorry for the serial killer, but you don’t feel bad for the high-school teacher who’s sleeping with his student. And as for the student herself, recklessly trashing the lives of those around her for no clear purpose, well… maybe it would have been better if that serial killer thing had played out differently.
Daydream Nation will be released 17 May 2011 on Blu-ray and DVD by Image Entertainment. Special features include trailers and a “making of” featurette.
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly, “The Crown International Files” for Criticplanet.org and recently published a feature on the films of Andy Sidaris for Fineprintmag.net.
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