Donnie Darko Is Still Weird 20 Years Later, and That's Still a Compliment

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<i>Donnie Darko</i> Is Still Weird 20 Years Later, and That's Still a Compliment

Donnie Darko has been one of my favorite movies since I was 13 years old, which is a pretty inappropriate movie for a middle schooler to claim as their favorite. The first time I watched it, I was huddled with my older sister in our shared bedroom not quite understanding the themes or how questionably some of the female characters had been written. But we loved it. What I think hooked us was the film looking like the original Instagram filter, the infectious piano/synth score by Michael Andrews and Jake Gyllenhaal’s brooding face—a face I’d search for in many of my ex-boyfriends in my early 20s. Who doesn’t love a hot psychopath at some point? Don’t answer that. This past fall, I finally rewatched Donnie Darko—ahead of the 20th anniversary of its premiere at Sundance this January—with my fiancé (not a psychopath), as I had been raving about it for the duration of our relationship…which of course made him never want to watch it. But I had finally worn him down. I was giddy and loud as I repeatedly told him all the things he’d love about it. Mainly that Jake Gyllenhaal was in it.

As the film began, memories of my childhood rushed back to me. I smiled and then got sad, also known as a typical Saturday night for everyone in 2020. But I fought through it and started doing the whole check-in, “Did you see that?” thing people do when they watch a movie with someone who has never seen the movie in question. My fiancé loves that about me, and by “loves,” I mean he refuses to make eye contact until the end credits roll.

I cried at all the usual moments. I know what you are thinking: How many moments are there to cry during Donnie Darko? It was mainly the end montage when we see all the characters, good and bad (mostly bad), have a sudden flash of deja vu, accompanied by the haunting rendition of “Mad World” by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews. I’m a sucker for emotionally vague moments in films that make me go, “Wait, should I be crying or disturbed?” I always end up crying.

As the credits began rolling, I turned to my fiancé and asked him what he thought of it. He sighed a bit and I knew I was going to be annoyed by what he was going to say next. So I beat him to it.

“Why didn’t you like it?” I asked, attempting to withhold a pout. I lie. I pouted openly and freely.

He sighed again.

“I’m just over white dudes writing white stories that I know you could write.”

“Um, I would never write Donnie Darko,” I scoffed. This was already a ridiculous fight.

“I know,” he replied. “It’s just like, I can’t admire a white dude who lucked out on his first script and got all this attention. I mean, he was 23. You’re just as good or better.”

I laugh, because I’m not good at taking compliments. But I’d never thought about it like that before. It’s true. Richard Kelly’s first script was Donnie Darko, and his whole thing was that he shot it in 28 days—the same number of days that count down to Donnie’s death in the film. Which, to be fair, is kinda awesome and irritating at the same time. I’m not bitter at Kelly, just a little peeved. How is it he was able to have such a specific timeline for finishing a project? How was it that a draft of his first script managed to have all the ingredients he needed to tell this story with a beginning, middle and end? Did he even know what he was writing? What was his pitch like?

“So, this movie is about—just wait, this will blow your mind—wormholes AND a giant bunny. Also there are super hot chicks and a teenage boy who has never taken a shower.”

After years of analyzing the story, I have finally come to the conclusion that the film is a mix of three things: A sci-fi film about time travel, a superhero tragedy and a coming of age story about a teenager struggling with mental illness. In a way, I could relate because I’d had an undiagnosed mental illness all through my high school years and it felt like the end of the world was going to come at any minute. This realization finally helped me understand why I loved the film in the first place and why it didn’t have anything to do with the movie itself—though I do love me some broody Gyllenhaal.

Our subjective experiences play a major role whenever we hear, see or read stories—especially on repeat viewings. For example, when I watch The Lord of the Rings, I remember the smell of my grandmother’s bedroom where we lived for six months while my parents were separated; when I watch The Professional, I remember the night I cut my bangs with paper scissors and the look on my mother’s face; when I watch Donnie Darko, I remember the comradery of watching a fucked-up movie with my older sister while straightening our bushy hair and terribly applying nail polish. We all try to justify why we like what we like in attempts to avoid judgment. I know I have. I can’t tell you the countless times I’ve told disagreeing friends that I like M. Night Shyamalan, because his movies allow me to travel back in time to Friday nights at home, bloated after eating too much Chinese take-out.

So, when my fiancé finally asked me why I liked it, I was taken aback because I didn’t have a good reason—only a memory associated with it. I felt the need to defend myself because everything these days feels polarized into only having a right or wrong answer. It’s exhausting to witness the lack of representation in Hollywood and the lack of responsibility being taken by gatekeepers. It almost seems irresponsible for me to even enjoy some films. But being awake and aware of this, has, in a way, made me forget myself. I’ve been conditioned to accept the word of a white man’s narrative and have lived most of life trying to amount to it. I’m not saying all cis white men gain success over exactly 28 days, but their success might happen to come quicker to them than me, systematically speaking.

A few years back, I used to think that everything that came out of my mouth had to be a counterattack against white culture. I thought that was how to survive and how to stand up for myself as a Latina. It’s easy to be angry since the Latinx community is so underrepresented and constantly the butt of the joke. I still haven’t been able to watch Schitt’s Creek (no matter how many times well-meaning white girlfriends tell me how good it is) because the opening joke is the family’s maid opening the door to see the authorities and her only line is asking if she will be deported. That’s the opener. That’s the whole joke. Then she is never to be seen again.

This kind of thing happens all the time, so when I’ve been filled with anger—or even just conflicted about liking something I watch—it’s because I’m painfully aware that I’m sometimes seeing myself being laughed at on the screen. But with Donnie Darko, what matters to me is the memory of what my world felt like at the time I was watching it, not what the movie was about, its hidden meanings or even problems it may have showcased.

My childhood memories allow me to (slightly) forgive a lot about the movie’s overtly male POV, including the fact that Drew Barrymore and Jena Malone barely had lines except for dialogue that furthered the male characters. Or the fact that Donnie and Gretchen have sex for the first time when she’s going through a crisis of not knowing where her mom is—completely unrelatable! Sex is the last thing on my mind when I’m stressed out. Also, where is her mom? I need answers! Give Gretchen a bigger story! But two decades later, Hollywood still often sees women and BIPOC as accessories, decorations accompanying the male main event.

With all that taken into account, Donnie Darko is far from a perfect movie—and the gaping plot holes forced me to go to Wikipedia over and over again researching wormholes. Was that actually time travel the whole time? Were they in the wormhole the whole time? Also, someone needs to talk to Donnie’s sister about all her drinking! Come on Maggie, be better! But regardless of all this, I will always love Donnie Darko, even if I’m conflicted every step of the way. Kelly did his job well (despite all that stuff in the last paragraph), because he told a story that still resonates with a wide and diverse audience 20 years after the fact.

It discusses relevant topics like mortality, mental illness, the role teenagers have in changing the world and the constant neglect from adults in power. These haven’t gone away and, unfortunately, are still not spoken about enough in an inclusive manner. It’s a weird story that still validates and entertains its weird audience in 2020—even after working its magic on a bushy-haired Latina and her sister sitting in their bedroom way back when she was 13.


Becca Beberaggi is an LA-based screenwriter, visual artist, and singer (under her musical persona Roselina Albino) born and raised in New York City. You can connect with her at Beccathetinyhuman.com and check out her bi-weekly poetry newsletter, Dear Mind.

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