On paper, Daydream Nation sounds like a prime offering of teenage dysfunction, especially if you have a weakness for alterna-teens of the late twentieth century. It's infused with a healthy dose of Sonic Youth -- the film's title comes from the band's 1988 album, the themes reflect classic Sonic songs, and writer/director Michael Goldbach names one of the leads after band headliner Thurston Moore. Nation also offers the sexual release and danger of Doom Generation, the sarcasm of Heathers, Pump Up the Volume's alienating intelligence, and the stoner glee of Dazed and Confused. In other words, it should be cinematic crack to the youthfully disenfranchised -- teens behaving badly in a small and sketchy town. But unlike the creations it's similar to, Daydream Nation is a messy tale over-saturated with side plots, flat characters, and a bipolar tone.
Caroline Wexler (Kat Dennings) is a busty teenage intellectual who has moved to a tiny conservative town with her single dad. Everything about the place insults her modern sensibilities, as industrial fires rage nearby for months (leading to a momentary gas mask fashion trend), and a serial killer is targeting teenage girls. No one understands her, though stoner Thurston (Reece Thompson) has a crush on her regardless. Unfortunately for the clueless and hopelessly romance addict, Caroline has decided to reinvent herself as a saucy tart, using an essay about Monica Lewinsky to proposition her young teacher, Mr. Anderson (Josh Lucas). Before we know it, she's got a casual sexual/romantic relationship with the weak teacher, a love/hate friendship/romance with Thurston, and a world playing into her manipulative hands.
But this isn't really her, she swears in a voice over! She just went a little "crazy," like the rest of the town did that summer, which might make sense if the viewer was given any hint what her real persona is.
Caroline recounts her story jumping back and forth in time, sometimes pausing mid-scene to relay an anecdote or partially explain a character's motivations. Side stories are given their own screen title text and snappy opening, not only taking a vacation from the narrative flow, but doing so for irrelevant information. We're seeing what Caroline deems important, and it's a whole lot of random things, rather than the moments that make her or her story interesting. These blips are no doubt included and stylized to give the film life, but they only succeed in giving the tale a meandering split personality -- like loud advertisements that break the flow of your favorite TV program. This isn't a web of players whose lives ultimately interconnect in engaging ways; this is aimlessness in desperate need of a heroine who brings it all together.
Seeing Thurston's mom flirt with Caroline's dad does help further the path of the two teens, but in the same way a person's full financial history can explain their new car purchase – they're linked, but most of the information is irrelevant. Additionally, we're offered Thurston's lonely sister and her friend/boyfriend, his stoner friend who has an overdose epiphany, and finally outside the young kid's sphere, Mr. Anderson's life before he returned to his hometown.
Though there are many stories to latch onto -- led by a parade of supporting talent ranging from Andie MacDowell to Rachel Blanchard -- it's hard to care for or understand anyone in this world, which is just about the most important thing a film can do when it's relying on ridiculousness to tell a story. Where a movie like Doom Generation makes the absurd engaging with a lead who is quotable, spunky, and charming, Caroline is a collage of aspects and actions that don't quite mesh. She intermingles adolescent actions with an over-the-top cultural awareness, even daring to name-drop the Algonquin Table to be clever. And though she's adept at snark, Kat Dennings does nothing to fuse these competing aspects of Caroline into one believable unit.
Caroline attributes the whole strange affair, and her actions, to the "craziness" of everyone in the town fearing dangerous toxic smoke and murderers-at-large. But is that really the reason Caroline becomes a self-created lolita? Who was she before that makes this sexually free girl such a change? Are we to consider some of the ambiguity in the plot to be a technique to add suspense to the serial killer storyline? Why, then, does that thematic trajectory seem so utterly inconsequential?
Rather than asking questions that yearn for discussion and investigation, Daydream Nation opens up the question a movie should never hear: What's the point?