Note: This post is a contribution to the Deeply Superficial Blog-a-Thon at South Dakota Dark.
Orson Welles and Richard Kelly were both 26 when their breakout films were made, but only one of those works was made with the care and creativity beyond their years. Donnie Darko is youthfully flawed, but that's also part of its charm -- and perhaps the main reason it enjoys a cult-like following with young people. The story may seem impenetrable to some, but part of that is due to needlessly complex narrative elements, which often leads the viewer down the garden path but also out the gate and onto a busy highway.
But its youthful enthusiasm also results in a few truly special moments, that an older filmmaker might not have attempted. An opening credits introduction set to Echo and The Bunnymen's The Killing Moon feels like the beginning to a television drama (more memorably on the Director's Cut, when the song is replaced by INXS' Never Tear Us Apart), and Donnie and his sister Elizabeth (Jake and Maggie Gyllenhall) often exist on screen in luke-warm sexual tension. Even if the movie never quite comes together for you, it's hard to argue that the centerpiece comes in a wildly attractive scene at Donnie's high school where characters and plot elements are teased to us like a steakhouse menu. Kelly's camera swims through the school like a wandering freshman, and the whole affair is backed by a selective edit of Tears for Fears' Head Over Heels. I've only watched the movie itself all the way through a couple times, but it's easy to flip this sequence on every now and then to enjoy it on a deeply superficial level:
The first nod to an upcoming storyline, with a quick look at Patrick Swayze's coif, and the teacher who holds his "Attitudinal Beliefs" so dear.
My favorite shot of the sequence, as high school newcomer Gretchen (Jena Malone) briefly catches the eye of Kelly's lens through her locker mirror.
A clever, well-timed shot, as we see Seth take a quick snort of coke before the principal comes into view to take a naive look down the hall.
The school's grotesque mascot that will be mentioned later in the film
Jim Cunningham (Swayze) arrives on campus, "Attitudinal Beliefs" in tow.
Ms. Pomeroy and Mr. Monnitoff (Drew Barrymore and Noah Wylie) meet Jim, with the clearly disapproving Susie Bates in the background.
Samantha Darko (Daveigh Chase) and her dance team, a key plot catalyst.