Saturday, September 11, 2010

TIFF 2010 reviews: Daydream Nation

As it’s been for the past couple of years, my personal TIFF experience started off a bit anticlimactic this year, as I had no screenings on night 1 of the festival. So once again I bolted from work at quitting time, wolfed down just enough nosh to stay awake and landed a decent spot in line outside the Ryerson, which is usually an uneventful tradition, however Brian DePalma happened to walk by at one point. I called out a happy early birthday to him, which earned what may have been a slightly nervous laugh. DePalma doesn’t have a movie in the festival this year; coincidentally I was at the premiere of his last movie at the very same theatre at the 2007 fest (Redacted, which at the time I thought was a decent throwback to his early guerrilla-style political comedy work but upon reflection was more like being trapped in dinner theatre improv hell in the Iraqi desert).

Anyway, my first movie of TIFF ’10 was Mike Goldbach’s Daydream Nation, part of the Canada First! program. And it was…a very frustrating film. I really wanted to love it: so much about it seemed to be on my wavelength, from the millennial adolescent themes to the stellar casting--more on Kat Dennings in a moment--to the fact that it’s named after a Sonic Youth album (Goldbach also named his lead male character Thurston…dude’s a serious fan). And parts of the movie do attain a certain transcendence: Daydream Nation has so many haunting visuals it achieves a near dreamlike sense of sadness and surrealism. Its sense of apocalyptic dread is much more finely attuned than even, say, Donnie Darko; it evokes a sense of psychic pain and adolescent anguish like little else I’ve seen of late. And the dialogue glows with wit in a manner that sidesteps the cloying trap of post-Diablo fest fare, except for an odd moment where Dennings’s character Caroline repeats one of her screw-the-world diatribes verbatim to no registered effect. Killer TIFF-centered moment: Caroline insults her new small town home as having “more incest than an Atom Egoyan movie,” which is the kind of line that at this festival earns wincing, laughing “ooooohhhhhs” followed by glances around to see if Egoyan happens to be in the audience. I’ll state for the record that he wasn’t, which I know because ten minutes after the screening let out I passed him on Yonge Street heading in the other direction. It’s that kind of week in Toronto.

Unfortunately, the oppressive (and once again, I’m saying that as a compliment) atmosphere of the visuals can’t cover up the somewhat patchwork nature of the script. I got a sense of a bit too much scattershot spitballing, that Goldbach fell into the trap of putting every idea he had onscreen in case he didn’t get a chance to use it in a second film. I had enough caffeine in my system that I know I didn’t nod off, yet on several occasions I felt lost, like scenes had been excised from a longer cut with less grace than was needed. Flashbacks are bungled just enough to cause temporal confusion; onscreen titles are used, but so sparingly that they seem like an aesthetic choice he couldn’t bring himself to totally commit to; there’s a serial killer subplot that comes and goes with little enough comment that it feels like it’s only there for atmosphere; a Taxi Driver homage pops up confusingly and then vanishes again. For all the many producers involved, what Goldbach needed was someone to tell him “You’re almost there. Just one more tightening-up pass through the screenplay and it’ll be on much more solid ground.” He didn’t have that producer.

What he did have, however, is Kat Dennings, who was the perfect choice for Caroline, embodying too-much-too-soon voluptuous adolescent sensuality crossed with an anarchic spirit and hard-shelled wit. Dennings follows through on the promise of earlier roles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist; this could be her Ellen Page-style breakout role, though Daydream Nation betrays its Canadian origins much more than Juno did and I have my doubts about American audiences so quickly embracing an inky-black comedy that namechecks Egoyan in its punchlines. Casting all around is impressive, it should be noted; she’s been MIA from mainstream screens for so long I’d forgotten what a vibrant screen presence Andie MacDowell can be with the right material. Josh Lucas also strikes the right notes as a teacher with boundary issues that he makes the excesses of his character more plausible, and Rachel Blanchard has somehow grown out of teen comedy nitwit roles into deeper-than-she’s-letting-on supporting player status.

So it’s a mixed bag. But still a decent opener for the festival this year, and deserving for the most part of the critical praise it’s been getting. (***)

No screenings today unless I score a ticket for Lapland Odyssey in the rush line, then two tomorrow plus the Bell Lightbox opening street party.

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