Watching: Donnie Darko

Entertainment Weekly posted its list of the best 50 high school movies this week; I've seen 33 of them, a fair number of which were released long after I left high school. John Hughes is well represented, and Pretty in Pink is my sentimental favorite (my friend Meredith and I used to stop the videotape—that's V.H.S.—during the scene where Duckie and Andrew Dice Clay are eating barbecue-flavored potato chips so we could drive to the Kwik Trip for barbecue-flavored potato chips). I would round out the top 10 with Clueless, Heathers, Lucas, Rushmore, Sixteen Candles, Grease, Dead Poets Society, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Say Anything.

The problem is, where does that leave Donnie Darko? EW checks it at #14, but I would place it higher, if it weren't a film that defies easy classification—as well as logic, understanding, and description. But, I truly, madly, deeply adore it, for the writing and humanity and spot-on oddball casting, if nothing else: Jake Gyllenhaal as a more-than-mildly disturbed teen with severe bunny problems and a time travel obsession; Jena Malone as his cute, troubled crush; Maggie Gyllenhaal as his big sister (!); Drew Barrymore as a Graham Greene-loving English teacher; and Patrick Swayze as a self-help infomercial king who happens to be a pedophile. And certainly for the warmest, most sympathetic cinematic parents I've ever seen: a perpetually amused Holmes Osborne and the ever-amazing Mary McDonnell, who turns the line "I don't recall...him ever having mentioned a rabbit" into a master class of maternal confusion and concern. It's dark and creepy and weird and funny and sad and hopeful and true, and it ends with a death, a smile, and a wave—I'm just not sure I consider it a "high school movie." It always felt like a family film to me; i.e., a film about a family, even before I read this Q&A with screenwriter/director Richard Kelly, where he explains the genesis of my favorite scene, and why he scripted it the way he did:

"Asking Cosmic Questions: Richard Kelly interviewed by Kevin Conroy Scott"

I thought the first dinner-table scene, where the family sits down for pizza and discusses politics, sets the tone for the film. I was wondering where the dialogue came from, particularly the banter about "fuck-ass" and "suck a fuck."

This interview is becoming so academic! Two of my fraternity brothers, Bill Endemann and Justyn Wilson, used to get into these vicious insult wars and it would also devolve into creative combinations of curse words—and "fuck-ass" was one that stuck with me. I must give credit to them for that. There is something inane about bizarre combinations of cuss words. For a family, what began as a political discussion devolved into a discourse of "What's a fuck-ass?" It just seemed to cover the spectrum of conversation at a family meal.

I also thought it was very interesting because it says something about the parents. They are more insulted by the political comments about voting for Michael Dukakis than by the word "fuck-ass" being used in front of their nine-year-old daughter.

That's not the family I grew up in, but to me there is something interesting about a family that is so liberal in their lack of inhibition yet politically very conservative. There is something interesting about that dichotomy because I do think it exists: an environment where the children would have the confidence to completely disagree with their parents about politics. Unknowingly, the parents have created an open-minded, liberal environment in a politically conservative household; they have created their own liberal monsters. It is an unusual disparity, but it was intentional. The traditional way of doing conservative Republican parents is that they don't let their children cuss. A lot of people in Hollywood are very liberal and it is very easy to bash conservative people. I come from a family of conservatives. I come from the land of Republicans. These are people that I love and care about. You have to respect both sides of the political system. You have to respect both parties and even though you may disagree with many of the things a party stands for, you have to try and come to an understanding of why someone thinks that way, otherwise you are never going to come to a solution. I did not want to demonise a character because they are conservative or they are Republican. That would be condescending and as a storyteller it is not my responsibility to push a political ideology on somebody by demonising one side. I wanted to make sure the audience loved those two parents.

—From The Donnie Darko Book