Daydream Nation begins with narration. Our lead, 17-year-old Caroline Wexler (Kat Dennings), informs us that she’s about to tell us a story taking place during the year when everything happened. She and her father (Ted Whittall), have recently moved to a small town in the middle of nowhere. There’s a constant burning in the distance, a serial killer is on the loose, and Caroline hates it here.
At the school, she explains that she knows everyone hates her because she’s new. Maybe if they got to know her, they wouldn’t. Probably not, though, as we get to know her throughout the film, and she’s not a very likable person. Or maybe she is and we never see the “real” her. She mentions that she has decided to reinvent herself because, well, why not? She’s already determined that everyone hates her, so she might as well make the best of it. She becomes a very unlikable person, although maybe that’s exactly what she was aiming for.
The problem for the audience is that we haven’t seen the transformation. We have no reference point to look back on, so this “new” Caroline is the only one we’ve ever known. As a result, the brat we see for most of the film is who we identify as “Caroline,” even if that’s not who she really is. Her decision to become someone new is lost on us, and serves only as an excuse for the filmmakers to have her do whatever is convenient to the plot.
Essentially what they decide is that they’re going to involve Caroline in a love triangle between a troubled stoner named Thurston (Reece Thompson) and her English teacher, Barry (Josh Lucas). She becomes involved with the teacher first, “seducing” him before eventually getting him into bed. Next comes Thurston, who likes her for reasons that are never made completely clear. We’re told that Thurston is just there as a cover (word gets around small towns quickly, and rumors are already swirling that there might be something between the teacher and his student), but eventually turns into something more.
There’s no depth to anyone in this film. There’s supposed to be, and I can see attempts made, but none of it actually translated to this final product. All three characters are supposed to be very distraught individuals, but there’s no complexity to any of them. They end up as one-note archetypes, and completely unrelatable because of this. The actors are fine, but they’re not given anything to work with because their characters are written in such a silly manner.
There are a couple of other subplots as well, but none of them get as much focus as Caroline’s because she’s the narrator and therefore shouldn’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives when she’s not there. She does, sometimes, which leads me to believe that she’s either dead and therefore omnipotent (because all dead narrators are), or she was told some intensely personal things by the other characters after the film ends. Or maybe she’s just dreaming it all up, filling in the blanks with her mind. The film’s title does contain “daydream” after all.
This isn’t ever explained, so you’re left to make your own conclusions. I do wonder, however, how she saw the ghost of someone she never met. Or how that ghost was able to throw rocks at other people he had never met. It seemed to me like Daydream Nation wanted to be deeper than it was, but was severely cut down in post-production. Or maybe there’s too much to take in during the first viewing. It is a heavily symbolic film, but also contains a somewhat complex story, giving you a lot to absorb. Maybe too much to fully grasp it; I’m not entirely sure.
What Daydream Nation really wants to be is Donnie Darko just without the sci-fi elements. It’s also missing the coherency. While you could interpret Darko many ways, and there are websites dedicated to trying to figure out exactly what it all meant, this film can really only be seen one way. There isn’t quite enough depth or ambiguity to allow for multiple interpretations, although individual elements are left up to the viewer. For instance, what does the constantly burning industrial fire symbolize? How about the serial killer? Darko was filled with these, but the film as a whole could also be seen in more ways than one, which is something Daydream Nation can’t claim.
There is a wit to the film that keeps it entertaining. While the snarky lead who plays two men against each other isn’t exactly the most endearing character, the narration is typically enjoyable to listen to, and I’ll never get tired of a sarcastic character. She’s also really smart, which does make you wonder why exactly she has decided to go through with this transformation, but there you go. She’s interesting, or at least sets herself up to be interesting, but then the film turns her into a one-note character whom we’ve all seen before. Although taking good ideas and either neutering or forgetting about them is something that this film is good at — the serial killer is mentioned as a key point and then only mentioned a couple of times — so at least you can say that it’s consistent.
Daydream Nation is sometimes entertaining, but fails to be anything more than what it is at face value. It never fully comes together, which is a shame because some good elements are included (and then wasted). It has a lot of symbolic imagery, characters that have a lot of potential, and a workable plot, but none of these add up to anything particularly worthwhile. If you’re a huge Kat Dennings fan, then you’ll want to give this a watch, but if you’re not, you can easily do without watching it.