Even more than 20 years after its releasemany are still debating exactly who is Frank in Donnie Darko and what he and the movie was actually about – was it a science fiction film, was it a coming-of-age story, a mirror to the insecurities and desires of adolescence, or simply the stream-of-consciousness servings from the complicated mind of its creator? However, avid admirers of the film understand that it never simply fits into one category; that’s the beauty of Donnie Darko.
There is one common aspect amongst its passionate fans: those who loved it understood that, while the sci-fi elements in Donnie Darko do amp up its appeal, they are majorly there to reflect the tsunami of emotions which are felt by its titular character. One has to see beyond the web of scientific or supernatural aspects and the terrifying Donnie Darko rabbit, and instead relate to Donnie’s prime dilemma, something that every young adult goes through – the fear of being alone and misunderstood, and the desperation and determination we all feel to find our place in this big, wide, scary world.
So, let’s highlight why Donnie Darko continues to be loved by young adults and teenagers, even though more than two decades have passed since its release.
It tells them they are not alone
The journey from being a child, to a teenager, to a young adult, and finally ascending into adulthood often leaves an individual feeling lost; there is a lot of transition in a comparatively short period of time. They assume that they are the only ones going through the complicated cycle and feel alone as they fight to discover what the world is truly like. But Donnie Darko puts forward a shared universe where every teen is fighting their own small wars. The movie posits that one day, everyone’s bubble of safety eventually bursts, and they’ll find out that the world is far more complex than they were told and had thought.
Donnie Darko reminds people of how isolating and potentially depressing it can be to recognize the phoniness of many adults, with their simplified constructs and trappings, and how easy it is to feel alone when everyone misunderstands you; Donnie Darko shares this pain, and provides solace in doing so. What further helps ease this often long stretch of loneliness in youth is how the film gives a simple explanation of why a teenager / young adult is not easily understood.
Many of the authority figures in Donnie Darko prefer to opt for the easy way out with basic binaries and condescending generalizations. This is epitomized by one simplifying motivational speaker and one narrow-minded teacher who readily categorizes every action as something motivated either by fear or love alone.
The disaffected youth, however, which composes the cast of Donnie Darko sees the gray area in between these binaries, experiencing the plethora of emotions out there, the complicated moral obligations, and the layout of life itself. Anyone who is in the process of making this discovery finds solace in the fact that Donnie’s fictional journey on-screen is based on the real-life difficulties faced by teens and young adults everywhere, which again means that the path they are on is not as untrodden as they presumed.
Donnie Darko makes them feel seen, understood
The film is a blessing in disguise to every teen and young adult who has felt the crushing disappointment when people close to them fail to understand them and have often had their limitless thoughts oppressed by them. This constant experience makes them perceive themselves as someone who is weird, unlikeable, and at worst, invisible.
But when they get acquainted with Donnie Darko, they find a kindred spirit. They feel seen, that someone out there (the credit goes to director Richard Kelly) understands them, and get the reassurance that they are neither invisible nor simply walking through life without leaving a mark. The film goes out of its way to show that there are people, often troubled youth who have grown up and infiltrated ‘adulthood,’ who see this and try to help, as Richard Kelly does.
One of the many memorable aspects of the film is the fact that, while Donnie is in the throes of teenage anxiety and believes that no one gets him, there are many who certainly try their best to understand him. These are not the kind of adults who treat youthful questions as something pointless – they are ready to decode the meaning behind Donnie Darko’s query, whether it is his Chemistry and English teachers, his parents, or the guidance he gets from the book of Roberta Sparrow aka Grandma Death.
For teenagers or young adults, this drives forth the fact that they matter, that there will always be people who are willing to understand them, and that these people are sometimes just a conversation away.
It explains what being a teenager / young adult is truly like
The majority of films out there follow some set stereotypes when depicting youth, usually individuals who are busy partying, smoking, and rebelling against their parents, either with moody anger or comic exaggeration. They never explore their personalities or decode the unique prism through which they perceive the world.
Donnie Darko absolutely steals the show in this category, as it beautifully explains how a teen / young adult’s mind and thought process works. The film retains the wide-eyed wonder of a kid, the curiosity toward discovery of a teen, and the more adult themes of conformity, individuality, and taking responsibility for one’s decisions. The film does not create caricatures (except for maybe the Donnie Darko rabbit), but rather three-dimensional characters who suffer through the transition from childhood to adulthood.
The fulfillment of the biggest teen dream- the power to do the impossible
Donnie is not only relatable to many, but also just about everything that a teen / young adult wants to be: fearless, badass, standing strong against what’s wrong, admired despite being labeled as “weird,” and, of course, able to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the people close to him. The beauty of his and the movie’s ending is that Donnie Darko chooses to save and love even the people who misunderstand him, and with whom he struggles to connect.
Perhaps the biggest thing Donnie Darko does right is give hope to its target audience. Hope that kindness exists, that there is a way out of this complicated cycle of being misunderstood. Hope that they are capable of love and being loved no matter the society’s negative perception of them, and above all the hope that one day, everything inexplicable will finally make sense to them.
Director Richard Kelly has declared his determination to one day return to the world of Donnie Darko.
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