In the troubled small town of Michael Goldbach’s Daydream Nation, the soundtrack’s always tuned into some evocative alt-rock song and a fume-spewing, possibly symbolic industrial fire forever rages in the background. It’s a “backwards hick town” per the narration of star Kat Dennings, who plays a high-school transplant looking at a new year in yet another town where she’ll have trouble making friends. Instead of trying, or falling in with a drugged-out burnout crowd eager to accept her, she sets about seducing a young teacher (Josh Lucas) who proves easy pickings. But one of the burnouts (Reece Thompson) proves too smitten to give up on her, and too charming, in a wounded way, for Dennings to ignore. Meanwhile, as if that industrial fire weren’t paranoia-stoking enough, a serial killer stalks the outskirts of town.
Making his feature debut, Goldbach reveals a great talent for striking images and a steady hand at creating a mood. He moves the camera with confidence and plants it with even greater assurance. (There’s a mid-film shot of Dennings reclining in a satellite dish against a magic-hour backdrop that looks like it belongs in a gallery.) But he still has a lot of room to grow as a storyteller and a crafter of characters. The plot unfolds elliptically, with a lot of digressions and episodes given their own titles. But the strategy only makes it feel like the film’s trying to make a simple story seem more complicated that it needs to be, an impression that’s harder to shake as the convolutions take a turn for the ludicrous toward the end.
Though Dennings is dourly charming in the midst of action—particularly in a clever scene in which she takes apart a classmate who calls her a slut, and in moments when her hard-practiced cynicism bumps up against Thompson’s romantic idealism—her flat voiceover proves more distracting than enlightening. At one point, she describes her new home as a place where “there’s more incest than an Atom Egoyan film.” That’s a sharp line (even if it only really applies to one Atom Egoyan film) and one of the few moments when Daydream Nation takes a break from its unrelentingly portentous tone for a moment of levity. It’s a film about teen angst that’s too caught up in its characters’ state of mind to see its way through to the other side.