Daydream Nation was the underground rock band Sonic Youth's most defining statement, still considered a classic by critics to this day. Daydream Nation the movie is an obvious attempt to make a similar statement in film, but it's unlikely to have the same sort of staying power.
Caroline Wexler has transferred to a new, and apparently noxious, school, for "the year that everything happened." Our narrator for this journey, she's automatically, if without explanation, smarter, wittier and more interesting than all of her schoolmates, as main characters in teen dramas are wont to be. This is a blessing of sorts, as having a typical teenager guiding us through would probably be a bear to endure, but with this combination of elements it's hard to view her as anything but the voice of the older, more mature filmmaker injected into the story, where he can now, with the benefit of hindsight, make all of the commentary on teen culture he didn't have the wit or experience to make whilst actually a part of it.
Bored and with nothing better to do, Caroline decides to seduce her teacher, Mr. Barry Anderson, just to try her hand at being someone different. This turns out not to be especially hard to do, and actress Kat Dennings pretty much sells us on its effortlessness. Pretty, self-assured and warmly seductive, she strikes one as being rather difficult to refuse in such matters. At her newfound partner's urging, she starts dating a classmate on the side in an effort to deflect suspicion. The most charismatic of the gang of stoners present in every teen film (and probably, in all honesty, in every actual high school), Thurston Goldberg hasn't got a chance: he's pretty smitten from the get-go, but is fumbling and awkward compared to the thirtyish Mr. Anderson. He's also nursing wounds over a friend's recent DUI death, trying to self-medicate the pain away with anything possible. Add in a local serial killer, a cleaning fluid-induced epiphany and the never-ending tire fire from The Simpsons, and you've got, well, something of a meandering mess.
It's hard to describe the film's plot because while there are a lot of elements at play, for the most part they don't tend to add up to anything. It's not at all hard, on the other hand, to see what was being attempted. Writer-director Mike Goldbach clearly wanted to capture a cinematic snapshot of a moment in time seen through nostalgic glasses-indeed, the liner notes to the CD reissue of Daydream Nation the album describe it in almost those exact terms, and it's not hard to believe that they inspired the very idea of this film, what with Sonic Youth contributing not only the title and two soundtrack cuts, but the name Thurston, after singer-guitarist Thurston Moore, with a very thinly-veiled variant of the director's own last name replacing "Moore." The problem is that music is abstract by nature. A film generally needs to go somewhere. Many of the story elements have no clear resolution. I'm sure someone out there is piping up with "but, but, but that's the point!" to which I reply that it can go right ahead and be the point, and still be a bad choice. Why have Caroline spend much of her early narration describing the sheer vileness of the student body, only to give her almost no interaction with the other students? If she was hated on sight by nearly everyone, how did she get invited to the party where she meets Thurston? The serial killer subplot, in particular, feels very superfluous, and the script spends much time in setting up a red herring for his identity when it could've been actually exploring the decoy character's motives.
There are times when the film borders on insightful, such as when Caroline verbally dissects a classmate with her trademark incision and spontenaity, only to later repeat her words verbatim when speaking to someone different, showing that her verbal reparteť isn't as trenchant and offhanded as she pretends-I think most of us have been there. Kat Dennings is engrossing as an actress, and manages to be likeable even when her character isn't. And true to its name, the film accomplishes a dreamy atmosphere for the duration of its running time. It's too bad that it spends so little time exploring its full potential, setting up interesting ideas and then not going deeply enough into them. I suppose I should check back with Mr. Goldbach in a few years. It is, after all, his first directorial effort, and Sonic Youth already had five albums behind them when they created their Daydream Nation. These things can take time.
-review by Matt Murray