Stephen King once claimed that he hated high school and doesn’t trust anyone who looks back on their teenage years with any enjoyment. In his own words: “If you liked being a teenager, there’s something wrong with you.” While I have quite a few fond memories from my high-school days, mostly due to a couple of lifelong friendships and a budding obsession with horror movies, even I have to admit that it was an absolutely terrifying time to be alive.
Back then, movies were one of my only sources of comfort, especially ones with protagonists that I could relate to. Sure, I loved John Hughes flicks as much as the next wannabe film buff, but I always had a hard time identifying with the happy-go-lucky teens that populated his stories. However, one fateful day I stumbled on a DVD containing one of the most accurate cinematic depictions of adolescence while I was at the perfect age to experience it. Naturally, I’m talking about Richard Kelly’s coming-of-age parable/surreal supernatural thriller, Donnie Darko.
2021 marked the twentieth anniversary of Kelly’s debut feature, and though I’ve (gladly) been out of high school for over a decade now, I still look back on this movie as a nostalgic snapshot of a strange moment in life. Being Donnie’s age when I first watched it definitely helped in connecting with teenage struggles like bullies, girls and having parents worry about your mental state, but back then I was way more interested in the apocalyptic package that surrounded these elements. Nowadays, it’s exactly those mundane conflicts that make me consider the film a classic.
If you’ve somehow never seen this genre-bending oddity, Donnie Darko follows a young Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular Donnie, a sixteen-year-old with a history of emotional problems living in a small town during the ’80s. Taking place during a single lunar month, the film chronicles Donnie’s attempts to survive high-school while also dealing with visions of a man in a creepy rabbit costume warning that the world is going to end soon. There’s also a bit of teenage romance and a few time travel shenanigans thrown in for good measure.
Kind of like adolescence itself, Donnie Darko is a simultaneously frustrating and rewarding experience that operates more on feelings rather than logic. Despite this, the experience somehow comes together in the end due to the film’s solid emotional core. With the movie taking clear inspiration from David Lynch’s dreamlike approach to filmmaking, making sense of the series of events in Kelly’s script doesn’t really matter as much as how these events make you feel. This only works because the film lands pretty much all of the story’s emotional beats.
In fact, I prefer the theatrical cut of the film over the so-called director’s cut, which Kelly has referred to as more of a “special edition,” since he’s actually satisfied with the original release. The theatrical version leaves more of the story open to interpretation, and having less exposition means that audiences can experience the film’s strange events subjectively as if it were some kind of cinematic Rorschach test. The soundtrack also feels a little off in the director’s cut, especially since I’ve always thought that Echo & the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon served as a perfect introduction to this melancholy yarn.
In any case, while being open to interpretation makes Donnie Darko a more interesting piece of art, it’s the pulpy sci-fi, horror and even comic book influences that drew me to the film in the first place. In some ways, these influences make it even more of a teen movie, as the story deals with speculative ideas that would almost certainly appeal to most teenage viewers. These genre elements begin with the film’s eerie atmosphere, with the story tackling existential dread as characters explore Kelly’s near-fatalistic approach to time travel.
This metaphysical horror is only exacerbated by Donnie’s status as an outcast and loner even among his peers, as well as his struggles with mental illness. One interpretation of the film even regards the entire thing as a vivid fantasy from Donnie’s point of view, with the character becoming isolated as he loses his grip on reality. The recurring theme of teenage isolation also leads to one of the film’s most chilling moments, with the late Patience Cleveland (unfortunately in her final theatrical appearance) whispering that “every living creature dies alone.”
Of course, the film’s most iconic spooky moments come from Donnie’s encounters with Frank, which is probably the most recognizable character in the movie. Hell, I only gave the DVD a shot because of the creepy bunny-man on the cover, so Kelly was clearly onto something with his odd design. There are other horrific elements as well, such as Patrick Swayze’s motivational speaker Jim Cunningham being revealed to be a pedophile, plus numerous references to classic horror media like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and more than a couple of nods to Stephen King. The entire flick even takes place during October, culminating in a very appropriate Halloween celebration.
The film’s subtle super-hero influences (which range from charming alliterative names to bizarre superpowers and even multiverse theory) also have a dark twist. You can actually interpret the story as a tragic and convoluted attempt by the universe to teach Donnie that “with great power comes great responsibility.” While I won’t get into spoilers here, it’s clear that, in this case, “responsibility” entails a fate much worse than simply using superpowers to fight off costumed bad guys.
At the end of the day, these genre elements only work because the film blends its teenage fantasy with a convincing tapestry of adolescent life in the ’80s. Donnie’s relationships with his friends and family are incredibly nuanced and believable, and I especially appreciate how the filmmakers included Jake’s real-life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal into the mix. This allowed for quite a few memorable interactions like the unforgettable “how does one suck a fuck?” exchange. I’d even argue that the movie’s unique take on coming-of-age tropes manages to rival classic teen films like Dazed and Confused or The Breakfast Club.
I’m aware that Donnie Darko isn’t necessarily a perfect movie, with odd filmmaking decisions and surreal storytelling that won’t work for everyone, but it’s such an emotionally resonant experience that the usual flaws don’t seem that important to me when compared with the film’s sincerity. Hell, after The Box and the director’s cut of Southland Tales, I’m actually curious to find out what Kelly has in store for his proposed sequel.
There’s so much more that I could say about this film, as it’s one of those rare pieces of art that just keeps on giving, but the beauty of Donnie Darko is precisely in letting go of narrative theories and enjoying a moody ride through the horrors of adolescence. To end things on another Stephen King quote: “Let’s face it. No kid in high school feels as though they fit in.” You may not have dealt with apocalyptic prophecies or giant rabbit costumes, but at some point in your life, you’ve certainly felt the eerie loneliness that afflicted Donnie as a teenager. That’s why this is still my favorite teen movie twenty years later.