Featuring a dreamy indie-rock soundtrack that quickly turns sour, a sense of disenfranchised teenage romanticism that curdles under its own emo, twee-ness and some occasionally charming performances and admittedly clever quips, the indie film, “Daydream Nation” can’t hide the fact that it is absolutely callow — riddled with vapid coming-of-age cliches expressed first and foremost by a rather painful voice-over and endless slo-motion music-video montages. Directed and written by Canadian filmmaker Michael Goldbach (co-writer of Don McKellar’s “Childstar“), the tedious and cloying picture reads and sounds like the diary of a deluded and guileless college-kid who assumes the world is dying to hear what he has to say (sadly and ironically, just like one of the characters in the film who has written a godawful novel he thinks is brilliant).
Kat Dennings stars as 17-year-old Caroline Wexler, an obnoxiously sarcastic and overly-clever teenager (quickly becoming the de facto Kat Dennings character) who feels doomed when she moves to a provincial, dead-end jerkwater-burg and effectively ends any hopes she has of a fun or interesting high school experience. Reece Thompson plays Thurston (named after Thurston Moore because the movie is named after a classic Sonic Youth album, get it?!) an odd and maladjusted teen who becomes enamored with the pouty-lipped and enchanting Dennings; and Josh Lucas stars as Barry Anderson, the handsome teacher she decides to seduce to save herself from the sheer boredom of her existence.
The no-nothing town, already paralyzed by its own sense of going-nowhere self-loathing, is haunted by both a toxic industrial fire burning on the outskirts and a serial killer who has murdered four of its brightest (and most beautiful) teenage girls.
Vexed at her station in life, realizing that her high school is populated with equally frustrated, perpetually-stoned backwood hick students who offer her big city snobbery nothing of value, Caroline does what any normal teenage student would do: make eyes at and fuck the hot English teacher as he’s the only sophisticated enough person to offer her some kind of connection. Meanwhile, Thurston — he himself haunted by the death of an dear friend and drug buddy — and his friends scour their collective kitchens and chemistry labs for anything that may possibly induce some kind of high; yes, their lives are evidently that excruciating dull. Naturally, he falls for Caroline at first sight, and although seemingly far too unsophisticated for the sarcasmatron nymphette, he seems to charm her with his endearing/goofy ineptness regardless.
The teacher Barry, desperate to ensure that no one knows about his relationship with Caroline, hangs out with the gym teacher Ms. Budge (Rachel Blanchard) to keep the scent off his trail, and encourages Caroline to start hanging out with others of her own age occasionally. Of course, she chooses the painfully awkward Thurston, starts to take sex-pity on him and thus, a love triangle starts to bloom.
Then of course, near the beginning of the third act, there’s a genre mash-up gearshift. That seemingly innocuous serial killer, who didn’t seem to have much to do with the plot, other than a device to let the audience know there’s just one more reason why these people loathe their shitty lives, rears its head and the picture starts to take on thriller-ish and suspense-filled tones, which do not work in any kind of juxtaposition next to the teen dramedy we’ve seen until now. It does help build a theatrical crescendo since every character in the film seems to be having sort of elevated terrorist alert-like emotional crisis by the end of the picture, but the histrionics seem even cheaper when this threat amounts to almost nothing.
Featuring every indie-rock band in Canada (or so it seems), the largely insufferable picture takes music as cheap, emotional shortcuts at every chance it gets, abusing sentimental and anthemic (and good) songs by Stars, Metric and associated Broken Social Scene members to the point that they’ve been distorted into tear-jerking dramaturgy; raped and exploited and you may not ever want to hear them again. Overly-stylized, and trying too damn hard at every turn, “Daydream Nation,” only gets worse and worse as the picture’s melodrama soars. Meanwhile, when the telegraphed love triangle between Dennings, Thompson and Lucas hits its logical climax, the inherent emo-drama of the film spills over to eye-rolling levels. While ostensibly about the gulf between kids and adults (Andie MacDowell plays Thurston’s over-protective mother) and the angsty lack of connection that teenagers and adults feel with the world around them, “Daydream Nation,” while promising within its first 10 minutes, soon reveals itself to be like a especially average afterschool special that happens to contain decent actors and a sizable music budget. [D]