In many ways, Donnie Darko is just another film about an angsty teenager with ideas he feels nobody else understands. He lives in a typical suburban neighbourhood, goes to an overly strict Catholic school and rages against the repressive world that surrounds him. This is the same basic premise as 2017’s Lady Bird, but with hallucinatory rabbits, alternate universes, and discussions about the physics of time travel thrown in for good measure. It is this supernatural, pseudo-science-fiction element, along with the portrayal of teenage angst, that has made Donnie Darko a cult classic that has remained in the popular imagination ever since its initial release twenty years ago.
Anyone who’s watched the film has been left dazed and confused by its ending. As many critics have pointed out over the years, the time travel magic that ultimately leaves Donnie dead is hard to wrap your head around. But that lack of clarity means that viewers can try to piece together the chain of events themselves. Writer and director Richard Kelly has littered hints throughout the film, making a re-watch gratifyingly worthwhile. However, the supernatural elements of the film haven’t just been included to perplex the audience and present them with an enticing puzzle to solve—they reflect Donnie’s inner turmoil and his questions about the world around him.
Donnie himself admits that he is a “troubled” teenager, grappling with a fear of loneliness and hallucinatory compulsions that make him burn down houses and flood his school. Kelly takes Donnie’s existential questions seriously, allowing his characters to have protracted conversations about fate and death. This is what sets Donnie Darko apart from other films about adolescence. Donnie’s problems in his school and home life are discussed as part of a much larger questioning of the world around him and how it works. This existential bent to the film works because the teenage angst that we so often see portrayed is often philosophical in nature. Adolescent questioning is not brushed off as pointless and overdramatic but embraced as something meaningful.
The supernatural aspects of the film only help to make the more typical critique of 1980s American suburbia sharper. When Donnie is dealing with existential dread and fear of whatever crime Frank is going to make him do next, the school’s obsession with morality and fear of anything different seems all the more ridiculous. Kelly still manages to make his satire funny, however, with a ridiculous Patrick Swayze playing a motivational speaker who makes instructional videos complete with chintzy music and PowerPoint effects. This film’s funny moments keep it from becoming too dark and depressing and are definitely part of why this is a cult classic. Donnie’s monologue on Smurfette and the “overwhelming goodness of the Smurf way of life” can probably be quoted in entirety by quite a few fans.
Despite Donnie’s death, which is punctuated by Gary Jules’ haunting cover of ‘Mad World’, this is still an uplifting film full of funny moments and assurances that there are kind people in the world to counteract the hostility of some of the adults in the town. Donnie’s family is a caring one, he is influenced by two more open-minded teachers at school, and he has a loving and honest relationship with his girlfriend Gretchen. It is, after all, his love for his girlfriend that seems to motivate Donnie to travel back in time and sacrifice himself, thereby undoing her own death. Kelly’s message is a positive one, asserting that even those that society sees as ‘wackos’, like Donnie and oft-bullied Cherita, can love and be loved. As Donnie says to Cherita in their last interaction, “I promise that one day everything’s going to be better for you.”
Donnie Darko is a film about the difficulties of growing up, but one that embraces the darker, more philosophical aspects of this more fully than many others of its kind. Whether or not you can figure out the ending or fully understand the logic of the time travel, this is a film with a meaningful message. There is a little bit of Donnie in all of us—confused and angry about the world around us, and hoping we can do something to make life a bit easier for the people we love. For a film about a teenager and an imaginary bunny, Donnie Darko has a lot to say.
Artwork by Rachel Jung