While we’re on the subject of ’80s movies: the other day a twentysomething friend confessed he’d never seen “Donnie Darko,” which I found flabbergasting. Despite (or because of?) its well-known trajectory from Sundance failure to midnight hit to DVD staple, “Donnie Darko” is the closest thing to “The Breakfast Club” the Naughts had to offer.
For all its wormholes and freaky rabbits, “Donnie Darko” is about subjects that are very simple and tangible — teen angst, suburban malaise and navigating the high-school hierarchy. It takes them on in ways that are direct and honest, placing them in stark contrast to the particularly wish-fulfillment-type teen movies of the ’90s, a time when someone with no discernible personality like Freddie Prinze Jr. was somehow our national go-to guy for checking in with high schools.
Most of these movies are pretty straight-up wretched, failing as reality or comedy: archetypal representative “She’s All That” was bad enough, but try watching something like “Drive Me Crazy,” in which future “Entourage” star Adrien Grenier pretends to be an “alternative” bad-ass.
“Donnie Darko” connected with so many people not just as the weird, cultish item it is — or as a pretty terrific movie, which it is as well — but as one of the rare honest films about teen angst. And that’s a big part of why Richard Kelly had to set it during the 1980s. It was the last frame of reference for teen movies that at least attempted to be emotionally honest. He grew up then as well, which helps.
Critics fixated on the cheapest shots the movie takes from its ’80s setting: Patrick Swayze playing the sleazy self-help guru, the Dukakis references. And yet none of that stuff matters. What matters is watching teenagers who might quite possibly be fixating on John Hughes act out their own emotional problems at a time when that was just starting to be a part of the on-screen conversation — and then would shortly thereafter go away and die for a while.
Here’s the dinner scene, in which the conversation goes from politics to “want to tell mom and dad why you stopped taking your medication?” to adorable underage profanity:
[Photos: “Donnie Darko,” 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001; “Drive Me Crazy,” 20th Century Fox, 1999]