This film had a lot to live up to by bearing the same name as Sonic Youth’s best album. I was afraid I would either hate it or love it. Turns out, my experience with it was much more on the positive end of the spectrum. The viewer “in on” the title might be, like I was, reassured a bit early upon learning that one character is named Thurston (in honor of Thurston Moore, guitarist/vocalist with previously mentioned band). This film is a nice try…and I mean that in the most complimentary way.
Around the time of Godard’s film Le Gai savoir (1969), its auteur started to ideate the concept of “essay” in a particularly French way by having his characters go back to a sort of year zero (which, ironically, never occurred in Western calendar chronology). The etymology of essay (from French essayer) can be described as “to try” or “to attempt.” It was really even earlier that Godard started to feel this need to “start from the beginning” in order to express ANYTHING true AT ALL…around the time of 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967).
In Daydream Nation we know ostensibly little about Caroline Wexler (Kat Dennings) until she makes explicit late in the movie to let us in on her true personality. But that’s not really accurate. The film betrays the script. It is little wonder then that Godard at age 83 himself no longer uses a script (i.e. Adieu au langage). “The script can only be written after the film is finished,” he said recently in an interview. And he even means after editing!
But let’s be clear: the script under consideration is excellent. References to Atom Egoyan and the Algonquin Round Table don’t hurt! Yet, these deft drops of name are merely the spice to what is genuinely a well-written piece of drama.
And let’s be even more clear: director Michael Goldbach did an excellent, excellent job. I just feel that his best filmmaking might be ahead of him. That is not at all a bad thing. Were there no indications of greatness herein, there would be little upon which to base a future hope.
The Lolita element to this film is not entirely believable…at least not at first. Something about the mise-en-scène (young adult comedy/drama genre conventions) prevents us from believing that Kat Dennings is really that perversely Machiavellian. The Monica Lewinsky element, while funny, is frankly ludicrous. Yet, here the script betrays itself. We know much more about Caroline Wexler early on than she seems to think we know. This brings into question the form (literary/dramatic) of the work as well as the tired narrator cliché which has become ubiquitous in its present from since American Beauty. This enters into the arena of “nice try”…because I am thoroughly convinced that Michael Goldberg can do better.
Josh Lucas does a nice job of going from eliciting our sympathy to creeping us the fuck out. It is in the latter that director Goldberg excels at casting aspersion on this character’s innocence in the serial killings which are plaguing our film’s small town. There is an elegance in the thrilling suspense which nicely pays back in homage any debt it might owe to Hitchcock.
Ted Whittall plays Caroline’s icy father. Poor Thurston, the slacker suitor, can’t even get a foot in the door (literally). It takes the wonderful Andie MacDowell as Thurston’s mother to break down Mr. Wexler’s curt, cynical exterior.
Reece Thompson really blooms into a strong presence over the course of the movie. Even as an actor, he seems hopeless early on, but his contribution to this film should not at all be overlooked.
The true star, however, is Kat Dennings. She deserved to be in a film where she gets to romp around to Sonic Youth. Her acting is up to the task of sharing an editing table with Lou Reed’s “Lady Day” from his best album Berlin (1973). An ambulance can only go so fast, but the text message generation (SMS=save my soul, says JLG) can put its highest hopes in this young actress from Bryn Mawr, PA because she is already as timeless as Neil Young’s “Expecting To Fly.” Writers, director, and actress prove themselves worthy of that Buffalo Springfield song which all but wraps up this film as it ascends to a final high. After all this doom and gloom, I’m ready to see Kat on the beach. She deserves it.