Another View of Donnie Darko

Last night, I sat with my son and watched Donnie Darko. Only my second viewing of this cult classic. I have always found the story fascinating and Noah has been really interested in time travel scenarios for quite some time now. He and one of his school buddies have had long conversations on creating time travel scenarios. Both boys are not yet nine.

There exists on the internet some very thorough explanations of this complex story. One only needs to do a simple google search and they will unfold to you all the layers of meaning of the symbols; Donnie’s schizophrenic dreams and visions, his actions as dictated by his visions and the subsequent events that are triggered by his being “chosen” as “receiver”. If you have not seen the film, I highly recommend it, but for the purpose of this blog, I am going to reflect on a different layer of meaning. A much simpler one, rather then put forth by other writers on the web.

Donnie, Gretchen and Frank

Donnie, Gretchen and Frank

I firmly believe that Donnie Darko is a portrait of our disenchanted youth. It is a view of a failing educational system, and portrays very clearly the hypocrisy of that system. I will back up my point with some illustration, but I warn you, today’s blog entry could be a hefty one.

For editorial sake, the story begins with Donnie having one of his sleepwalking episodes. It is hinted early on that Donnie needs to be on medication because of some hinted at past psychotic behavior. It is also hinted that Donnie is both brilliant and creative. After the initial shock at the beginning of the story, namely when a plane engine crashes through the roof of Donnies family home (he and his family are spared in this instant).  We are quickly taken to Donnie interacting with other students at a bus stop, then in class and in school in general. This is the beginning of several disturbing encounters with so called authority figures in school which lead more to Donnie’s isolation.

Now here is where it gets dicey. One of the main characters is a nut job of a gym teacher. It seems she has introduced into the curriculum the teachings of a modern charlatan. Some crap about there only being two points in life, Fear and Love in which there is a straight line connecting the two and that all of life’s experiences fall somewhere on this line. Donnie, being a free thinker challenges this nonsense and is punished for it. {He tells the teacher to take the book and shove it up her ass]. Now here is where I am going to diverge and tell you a real life story.

My daughter Sarah, who is now 23, attended PS 230 until she was about 11. Her mother and I never saw eye to eye on education, so she ended up there. The school was considered a pretty good pick at the time in a well regarded school district. In 5th grade, my duaghter had a teacher whose name I have thankfully forgotten. Sarah would come home repeatedly with stories of how this teacher would act up in class. One would have to question the accuracy of the stories as it was coming from a nine year old, but the repeated stories made me suspicious. I had met the teacher briefly on a few occasions and found her to be slightly unbalanced, highly emotional without any provocation. But Sarah would describe real outbursts in class, and how the teacher would seem to ridicule students, especially boys. Sarah also described a visit from the teacher’s son, giving very precise physical descriptions of a young man completely riddled with severe physical tension. She would make a gesture with her shoulders, showing us how tense this man was. The description was of someone who had received a lot of emotional abuse. I decided I need to investigate further.

An opportunity came for me to accompany the class on a school trip to the Museum of Modern Art, for an exhibition of photographs by Gordon Parks. I was interested in the show, but was more interested in casting my observational eye on the teacher. To be truthful, she was on excellant behavior, at least toward me. He behavior towards the children though, showed a suppressed impatience. An intolerance of their very basic natures. My impression was of someone who had been in the trenches too long, and was suffering a kind of post traumatic syndrome. It was clear to me that although she was an experienced teacher, her days of being around children should have been over. Relegate her to another place in the system, but to keep her around children was just toxic for them. Not something we would wish for our children on a daily basis.

We went to the Vice Principle to speak about our concerns. What we got was a ritual stone walling. The Vice Principle, not only stood firmly with this nut of teacher, who had repeated complaints against her, but her tone toward us was extrememly condescending. It was an atitude I would see much of in the public school system. One where officals regarded the parents no better than the students. Their ability to speak with other adults had been severely atrophied over the years (probably never developed) and so the idea of solving a problem just never occurrs to them. An endemic aspect of just about everything municiple and yes, corporate. But I know this is not how it is with all teachers.

Contrast this with the teachers at BFS, who I have daily interaction with, I find loving and encouraging toward students and whom i could break bread with anytime.

To return to my Donnie Darko analogy, there are other teachers in the tale that are innovative, caring, encouraging. One, played by Drew Barrymore, is subsequently fired. She is an inventive and provacotive English teacher. The other, her lover, played by Noah Wylie, is a caring and brilliant science teacher. He is the one who begins to discuss physics and time travel theory with Donnie, intoducing ideas put forth by Steven Hawkings. But as the conversation between the two drifts into more esoteric territory, the teacher has to end the conversation, because of the fear of losing his job for venturing into forbidden philosophical territory.

There are many illustrations in this movie that show how the schooling of our children fails to recognize them for who they are. Even those teachers, who seem to be fearful about expressing their true feelings about what is wrong with the system that employs them.

Donnie and his English teacher

Donnie and his English teacher

I reccomend this movie. It is extremely clever, entertaining and addresses many of our concerns. It does not offer solutions. Why should it? It is sci-fi, and very good in its storytelling. I wanted to give this a spin I have not seen in others review of the story. I hope I have done so. Now go get the film, a bag of chips, a cool drink, and sit back and enjoy. Today’s rant is finished.

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4 Comments on “Another View of Donnie Darko”

  1. Diane Zeines says:

    For some reason I never saw this movie — it just wasn’t on my radar — but now I have it in my Netflix queue. I’m actually surprised that there haven’t been any reviews discussing exactly the point you make about the film’s subtext, which you picked up on because you are sensitive to this particular subject. It’s really too bad what has become of our educational system. The public school system is free, so the folks who work in that system are basically saying, “Tough shit — take it or leave it.” What a disservice they are doing to our children. It’s like we’re creating a generation of uptight and uncreative kids.

    • bzeines says:

      Just keep in mind this is a sci-fi, with teenage angst as a subtext. Since what most kids hate most is generally school, and that features large in this story, I felt I could put that spin on it. There are a lot of comments online as I said, who can dissect the nuances of the story. It is one of those sppoky tales where you have to listen closely as Frnak tells Donnie what to do. It is a pretty cool film.

  2. Larry Schwartz says:

    Great review Bruce. Interesting angle too. I saw the movie some years back and enjoyed it more for the sci-fi twist on a dark movie, and the cheap rabbit suit.

  3. bzeines says:

    Thanks Larry. The cheap rabbit is cool. Frank is an art student who was working on designing his own costume.. A little passing detail in the film.


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