Donnie Darko opens with the line, "I'm voting for Dukakis." Several fluid minutes later, the audience has met the title character and his loving yet banal family, heard prophecy about the end of the world from a demonic rabbit and explored Donnie's high school to the strains of "Head over Heels." Something terrible has also happened to Donnie's house, which will not be fully explained until the end.
It turns out that Donnie is a rather extraordinary teenager - and not just because Jake Gyllenhaal looks far too muscular to be a believable 17-year-old. What sets him apart from his peers is his ability to grasp the '80s unconscious abandonment and exploitation of youth. But unlike the protagonists in mid-20th century films, where rebels could still rebel, Donnie is incapable of any conscious protest. With his sense of righteousness kept in check through a diet of medication and psychobabble, Donnie is forced to literally sleepwalk his way through battles with child pornographers, self-help enthusiasts and an increasingly apathetic education system.
Nevertheless, the film is hilarious throughout. Yet even at its most comedic, there's a feeling that something truly important is being communicated. One sequence in particular -- a Star Search dance routine by a pre-teen group named "Sparkle Motion," with former child-star-exploitaitee Drew Barrymore looking on, verges on postmodern brilliance. And many small details, like when an English teacher tells a new student to "sit next to the boy you think is the cutest," are effortlessly original. It's almost unnecessary that the film is also a truly creepy low-budget thriller.
Donnie Darko did almost no business in theaters, which is a shame. It's easily one of the most original films of 2001. Fortunately, the DVD production is excellent, with the film in full widescreen, and several commentary tracks and deleted scenes included. But even without extras, Donnie Darko should be seen by anyone who values the incisive blend of commentary and entertainment that only independent cinema can provide. With first-rate special effects and good actors now available at low costs, directors like Richard Kelly can realize films with a degree of originality that Hollywood will rarely, if ever, achieve.