Charged with alternating currents of teen angst, sardonic wit, nervous dread and impudent sensuality, “Daydream Nation” suggests “Juno” as reimagined by David Lynch, or a funnier, sunnier “Donnie Darko.” Canadian writer-director Mike Goldbach is arrestingly inventive as he interchanges tones and upends expectations throughout an offbeat narrative about a sarcastic, sexually precocious 17-year-old, played with striking self-assurance by Kat Dennings, who barely maintains her bearings after moving to a small town only slightly less weirdsville than Twin Peaks. Although far too eccentric for mainstream auds, pic could perform well in select sophisticated markets.
Whip-smart and wickedly droll, Caroline Wexler (Dennings) is appalled when her widowed father (Ted Whittall) moves them to a backwater burg where the sky is perpetually overcast because of a nearby, long-burning industrial fire, and students at the local high school spend most of their time finding ways to get high.
Thoroughly bored yet still brazenly cheeky, Caroline sets her sights on seducing Mr. Anderson (Josh Lucas), a handsome teacher who tries, and fails, to maintain his cool in the face of her single-entendre come-ons. (Assigned to write an essay about the historical figure she most admires, she turns in an ode to Monica Lewinsky.) Shortly after they launch their age-inappropriate affair, however, Caroline realizes her lover is heavily weighed down with emotional baggage. All things considered, she may be better off having casual sex with Thurston (Reece Thompson), a lovestruck stoner classmate.
Trouble is, Thurston complicates matters by getting serious, and Anderson makes matters worse by getting furious. Meanwhile, lurking in the background is a serial killer who periodically preys on young people.
Taking his cue from a title borrowed from a Sonic Youth album, Goldbach manages — with the aid of Jon Joffin’s moodily evocative lensing — to give this, his debut effort as a feature helmer, the look and feel of a dream that is nonetheless focused and specific. It’s a first-person fantasia, narrated with equal measures of acerbity and anxiety by Caroline, who periodically pauses to offer an anecdote (such as one describing the serial killer’s first killing) tinged with magical realism.
Dennings effortlessly affects the air of a wise-beyond-her-years cynic — specifically, a Canadian cynic — whenever she lets loose with a snarky observation (“There’s more incest in this town than in an Atom Egoyan film!”). But she’s every bit as deft at conveying the emotional vulnerability and fretful confusion just below Caroline’s saucy, prickly surface.
Lucas strikes the right balance of neediness and creepiness, and gets a surprisingly big laugh during a throwaway scene that pays a backhanded homage to, of all things, “Taxi Driver.” Thompson is aptly engaging, as is Andie MacDowell as his understandably concerned mom. Whittall makes the most of a thinly written role, dryly cracking wise in a manner that indicates Caroline is very much her father’s daughter.
Shot mainly on location in Fort Langley, British Columbia, “Daydream Nation” benefits from superior production values. Of particular note is a soundtrack of smartly chosen pop and alt-rock tunes, including Emily Haines’ achingly wistful cover of Neil Young’s “Expecting to Fly.” Pic’s final image is nothing short of wrenchingly beautiful.