Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Daydream Nation

Illustration for article titled Daydream Nation

In the troubled small town of Michael Goldbach’s Daydream Nation, the soundtrack’s always tuned into some evocative alt-rock song and a fume-spewing, possibly symbolic industrial fire forever rages in the background. It’s a “backwards hick town” per the narration of star Kat Dennings, who plays a high-school transplant looking at a new year in yet another town where she’ll have trouble making friends. Instead of trying, or falling in with a drugged-out burnout crowd eager to accept her, she sets about seducing a young teacher (Josh Lucas) who proves easy pickings. But one of the burnouts (Reece Thompson) proves too smitten to give up on her, and too charming, in a wounded way, for Dennings to ignore. Meanwhile, as if that industrial fire weren’t paranoia-stoking enough, a serial killer stalks the outskirts of town.

Making his feature debut, Goldbach reveals a great talent for striking images and a steady hand at creating a mood. He moves the camera with confidence and plants it with even greater assurance. (There’s a mid-film shot of Dennings reclining in a satellite dish against a magic-hour backdrop that looks like it belongs in a gallery.) But he still has a lot of room to grow as a storyteller and a crafter of characters. The plot unfolds elliptically, with a lot of digressions and episodes given their own titles. But the strategy only makes it feel like the film’s trying to make a simple story seem more complicated that it needs to be, an impression that’s harder to shake as the convolutions take a turn for the ludicrous toward the end.

Though Dennings is dourly charming in the midst of action—particularly in a clever scene in which she takes apart a classmate who calls her a slut, and in moments when her hard-practiced cynicism bumps up against Thompson’s romantic idealism—her flat voiceover proves more distracting than enlightening. At one point, she describes her new home as a place where “there’s more incest than an Atom Egoyan film.” That’s a sharp line (even if it only really applies to one Atom Egoyan film) and one of the few moments when Daydream Nation takes a break from its unrelentingly portentous tone for a moment of levity. It’s a film about teen angst that’s too caught up in its characters’ state of mind to see its way through to the other side.