October 26, 2021
Richard Kelly’s unusual sci-fi drama made a star of Jake Gyllenhaal and introduced emo teens to a brave new world
Donnie Darko at 20: the soulful student favourite comes of age
Midway through Donnie Darko, a creative young English teacher played by Drew Barrymore repeats the old maxim – recycled over the years by linguists, scholars and writers including JRR Tolkien – that the simple, banal phrase “cellar door” is the most purely, pleasingly harmonious combination of words in the English language. There’s something to be said for that, but one wonders if writer-director Richard Kelly was offering a challenge to the claim by naming his protagonist Donnie Darko – an irresistible, perfectly ridiculous name for an ordinary suburban schoolboy that nonetheless encapsulates his fey, eccentric aura. His new girlfriend says the name aloud, lolling it like a mint in her mouth, before observing that it makes him sound like “some kind of superhero”. “What makes you think I’m not?” he replies, deadpan.
Well, what indeed. Kelly’s sci-fi-tinted tale of adolescent isolation came out six months before Spider-Man, the film that kick-started the now all-consuming superhero movie revival, and the two have more in common than you might initially assume: both are stories of an awkward teenage boy coming to terms with what appear to be otherworldly abilities, and assuming responsibility for the world around them. For plucky Peter Parker, that means standard-issue feats of derring-do and defeating evil; for downcast Donnie Darko, it means ending and altering the very timeline in which he exists, ultimately dying so that others may live. As superhero origin stories go, it doesn’t have much franchise potential: Donnie’s legend begins and ends in one fell swoop. But it has an eerie, enduring power: would that many comic-book heroes’ stories were so noble and haunting and finite.
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