"What's the point of living if you don't have a dick?"
Feature film debut by writer-director Richard Kelly, released fall 2001. To pigeonhole this movie by genre is to undermine one of its greatest strengths, its surprising versatility. Kelly learned from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; he shifts between comedy, melodrama, science fiction, and horror, sometimes holding them all within the same scene. Please refrain from reading the rest of this writeup until you have seen the film.
It follows the life of the titular Donnie, a high school student in the suburbs of Virginia, for one month, October 1988. Every detail of the period re-creation is startling and the total is immersive. From haircuts to earrings to cars to music--most notably Head Over Heels by Tears for Fears and Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division--the details are perfect, but they don't call attention to themselves and don't mean to provoke cheap laughs, the way most 80's films do.
Parts of this story are your typical 80's teen flick. Donnie is picked on by a mulleted bully. Donnie fights with his big and little sisters at the dinner table. Donnie finds first love with and loses his virginity to the new girl in his English class.
But Donnie also just narrowly missed being killed when a jet engine fell from the sky and crushed his bedroom. What happened to the plane? The FAA has no idea, they can't find it and aren't missing one. Where was Donnie at the time? He was sleepwalking, talking to a giant rabbit named Frank who told him the world would end in 28 days. Donnie had not been taking his medication.
So is it a feature-length episode of My So-Called Life or The X-Files? Both, and there's more: An oppressive supertext of right-wing mentality even as Reagan's rule comes to an end. Patrick Swayze stars as a self-help guru whose house is burned down by Donnie.
The rest of the cast is phenomenal as well. You know these people but you haven't seen them like this. Drew Barrymore as a mysterious English teacher who tends to scream expletives when she thinks no one's looking. Noah Wyle as a physics teacher and mentor who cannot reveal the secrets of The Philosophy of Time Travel lest he lose his job. Katharine Ross (Elaine from The Graduate) as Donnie's harried but kind therapist. Jena Malone (the young Jodie Foster in Contact) who displays stunning range for her age without ever quite breaking that icy exterior. And at the center of it all, Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie, who's hilarious, frightening, clever, and always completely real, even when he's hallucinating. You may have seen him as the lead in Bubble Boy. But probably not.
There are twists in the end of this movie. Not Keyser Soze or Sixth Sense twists, not the kind that buckle under applied logic. They enrich your understanding of the characters, and most importantly, you should have seen them coming all along.
I can't recommend this movie highly enough. It might just increase your understanding of yourself and the universe, and move you too. There's simply nothing else like it.