A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Donnie Darko is a dark thriller with a cultlike following. The movie has frequent swearing from teens, adults, and even a young child, and includes "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," and more. There is also frequent sex talk that is supposed to represent the generally anti-establishment viewpoint of the hero here: an angry, possibly mentally ill teen. Classroom vandalism (apparently committed by the hero under some sort of spell) and profane disrespect of teachers and authority-figure adults is part of the plot, and not exactly frowned upon. There is teen sex (non-explicit), references to pornography, and violence, although there is very little blood. There is also a violent death at the end.
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What's the story?
In a cozy affluent suburb in October, 1988, DONNIE DARKO (Jake Gyllenhaal), a rebellious teen, smart but diagnosed with mental illness and sort of a misfit at school, is lured from his bedroom by a phantom wearing a grotesque, metal-masked rabbit costume. The rabbit, "Frank," tells him exactly when the world will end -- in 28 days. Meanwhile a shattering series of events disrupt Donnie's already-unsteady world, including young love with a new girl at school. A plane engine falls out of nowhere onto his house, a sympathetic English teacher (Drew Barrymore) is punished for her choice of literature in the class, a youth-mentoring positive-thinking guru (Patrick Swayze) brainwashes the community, visions of wormlike appendages emerge from people's chests, and a neighborhood crazy lady turns out to be an ex-nun scientist who researched time-travel and metaphysical cause-effect paradoxes. Got all that? More menacing visits from "Frank" the rabbit lead to a Halloween night revelation, and Donnie realizing his pivotal role in this weird, interconnected web of destiny.
Is it any good?
This movie was embraced as a genuinely oddball "cult" item almost instantly upon its unsuccessful theatrical release. Like most cult movies, Donnie Darko works well on numerous levels -- as a brainy piece of science-fiction, an ominous psychological thriller, a satire on suburban values, or a tragic drama of a doomed young rebel. If anything it goes a little overboard in making adults (especially teachers/faculty) look cowed or cravenly stupid compared with the unstable but intellectually brilliant Donnie, well played by Gyllenhaal as a guy who can be likeable, sympathetic, and scary all at once.
Though Donnie -- sometimes in a trance-state, sometimes consciously -- commits vandalism and lashes out, he's smart enough to sense the eerie time-warp pattern behind all the odd goings-on. And he's heroic enough to make a Christ-like sacrifice at the end, for the good of everyone else, when the "end of the world" comes. Though it's possible he never had a choice -- just the insight. But by making their hero a classic underdog teen trying to come to grips with society, rather than an adult, the filmmakers created a far more poignant tragi-comic-coming-of-age-giant-skull-faced-rabbit-horror drama. Can you name a better one?
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what in the twisty plot of Donnie Darko is "real" or not, and whether the "philosophy of time travel" holds up. Could this whole story all be the result of delusional Donnie not taking his medication, as his family complains at the start? Did Donnie ever have control over the events that unfold?
- In theaters: October 10, 2001
- On DVD or streaming: February 4, 2003
- Cast: Drew Barrymore, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone
- Director: Richard Kelly
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
- Genre: Science Fiction
- Run time: 113 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language, some drug use and violence
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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