Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko

Sat October 21, 7:30 PM

Muenzinger Auditorium

New DCP Restoration

"Donnie Darko" may be the Everest of adolescent angst movies. A smart, emotionally troubled suburban teen wrestles with the usual stuff -- identity issues, bullies, well-meaning but clueless parents and various school absurdities -- and a few things considerably stranger. Early in the film he may enter a parallel universe involving events and images loaded with metaphysical and religious overtones, and he may get a chance to save the world.

This movie is loaded with "maybes," deliberate ambiguities and fodder for argument. For starters, there's a 6-foot-tall rabbit who makes sinister suggestions to Donnie. Throughout are hints of David Lynch's films and Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," as well as John Hughes movies and teen horror flicks.

The story's setting is 1988 -- there are several references to the Dukakis presidential campaign -- and Donnie, we quickly learn, is one distressed high-schooler: He sleepwalks and sees a shrink (Katharine Ross) who has him on medication (and he looks like it, half the time). His family (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne as mom and dad, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake's sibling, as his older sister) seems harmless enough, too genial to be blamed for the sizable chip on Donnie's shoulder. The psychiatrist isn't all Donnie's seeing -- he's visited by a man- sized rabbit far more sinister than Elwood P. Dowd's pal in "Harvey." The creature, named Frank, wears a fright mask and tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days. This news is allied somehow to a mysterious accident: a jet engine crashes into Donnie's house, and the authorities can't find any trace of the plane it came from. Meanwhile, things have gone awry at Donnie's school, where the counseling department has fallen under the sway of a creepy motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze), and his English teacher (Drew Barrymore, who also produced the film) is in the doghouse for having her students read Graham Greene's "The Destructors." There's a spooky old neighbor nicknamed Grandma Death, a mysterious book called "The Philosophy of Time Travel" and a new girl in town (Jena Malone)who's attracted to Donnie.

Director-writer Richard Kelly, making his debut here, pokes fun at life in the suburbs by showing us a family pizza dinner, a pre-adolescent dance team called Sparkle Motion, and a double bill at the local movie house of "Evil Dead" and "The Last Temptation of Christ." And the Swayze character's smarmy mantra about "controlling fear" is pitch-perfect for the times. Not exactly subtle, but Kelly handles most of it with a light touch, which fails him only in depicting the uptight gym teacher (Beth Grant).

"Donnie Darko" isn't flawless, but it's tough to shake. It's difficult not to make this film sound like unbearable obfuscation, but Donnie's struggles pack a serious emotional charge. He's understandably rattled when he realizes he's been given a superhero's task, but show me a teen who isn't convinced he's carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. If you haven't forgotten what that feels like, you should be able to connect strongly with "Donnie Darko." (W. Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle)

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