My Teen Obsession With Donnie Darko

Photo: Dale Robinette/Flower Films/REX/Shutterstock.
Sure, I pretend I discovered Joy Division in an authentically cool way, but it was just because “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is the song that plays when Donnie Darko opens the door to Gretchen Ross wearing a skeleton Halloween costume, with a hoodie over the top. And then they go upstairs because she’s upset, and she says “I guess some people are just born with tragedy in their blood” and then they have sex for the first time as the song plays out.

This scene has a lot to answer for in my love life and Donnie Darko has a lot to answer for in the rest of it. As a direct result of this one independent film, I’ve grown into a towering romantic emo who thinks true love must be doomed; thinks everything has a cosmic significance possibly connected to “God’s channel”; and is obsessed with death – particularly the idea that every living creature dies alone. It had such an effect on me that I almost feel I should be as famous as Jake Gyllenhaal is now, because it was the breakthrough moment for both of us.
Today the film celebrates its 15th anniversary with a re-release exclusively at the BFI, followed by a nationwide cinema release on 23rd. In a piece on The Guardian earlier this week, Gyllenhaal remembered the first release of the film, noting "The response was so different compared with back home: Brits seem to appreciate that, if you have something special, it doesn’t have to be perfect. They acted like they’d found a kindred spirit."

I first watched it at 16 but I can’t remember where. I do however, remember the two years of harrowing artwork that followed depicting Frank the bunny – in charcoal – on every scrap of paper I could find, with special biro editions on all my school planners. I can still draw the bunny from memory surprisingly well: you start with the eyes, then move onto the skeletal nose, then the teeth (draw them larger than you think you should), then shade everything in and get the overall head shape, then add the ears. A few angsty scratches with a compass to polish off.

I’d spend hours typing stuff like "why does Donnie wear Cherita Chen's ear muffs towards the end of the film?", "Is Donnie Jesus?" And "Who is the fat guy in the red jogging suit?" Following conspiracy theories to the last fan comment on page 17 of a forum. In case you’re wondering, the answers that come up are: He is as much an outsider as she is and so he wears her ear muffs as a signal that he is becoming more and more detached from reality. Yes, his character is loosely based on Jesus because he has to die to save others/ our sins and it’s implied that he goes to heaven at the end, laughing in bed before the jet engine dismembers him. And the fat guy in the red jogging suit is an undercover member of the Federal Aviation Administration who are investigating the Darko family after the crash, although some said he was from the future.

In my first year of university, where others brought home-comforts such as nice lamps and those vile white shaggy rugs, I couldn’t fall asleep without Donnie Darko playing and would often wake up in the middle of the night to that terrifying voice that says “Wake up, Donnie”, “I’ve been watching you”, “Come… closer”.
After ten years of unrequited love for Donnie Darko, I developed an off-shoot crush on the 2010, rumoured-to-be-gay X Factor contestant, Aiden Grimshaw, just because he sang “Mad World” by Gary Jules – which is the closing track to Donnie Darko – in the second round of the live shows.

Teenage nonsense, I concede. But it ran deeper than that. Despite the mother-father-children-nice-house set up, the Darkos are not a typical American family. They are not enthusiastic or upbeat people. In the opening credits, set in the garden, the dad blows leaves in his elder daughter Elizabeth’s face to annoy her. And, of course, the mum loves her young daughter Samantha, but she has questionable commitment to her dance troupe, Sparkle Motion, and this is noted by the other, more committed mothers. Apart from being academic (Elizabeth gets in to Harvard, Donnie is repeatedly noted by his teachers to have a high IQ), their children are left to figure things out for themselves. The Darkos made me feel better about my own high-functioning, highly dysfunctional family who also had emotional problems. So I liked looking at this imperfect family and seeing how they handled their son’s condition; there’s that lovely scene where Donnie says to his mum “how does it feel to have a wacko for a son?” and she replies “It feels wonderful.” You can see they love each other a lot, but that family time is not easy, and that they don’t quite understand each other, nor do they particularly try to.
Near the beginning of the film, Gretchen says to Donnie, “you’re weird”, and he says “Sorry”, and then she says, “No, that was a compliment.” Watching it back, I realised that instead of finding a boyfriend who was as weird and dark as Donnie, like I thought I wanted – I was the one who grew up to be weird and dark. And that maybe without the excess emo, belief in cosmic significance, and obsession with death I got from Donnie Darko, I'd have been that bit blander.

Most of the things I thought were profound at 16, I now find overwrought, if not completely ridiculous. But watching Donnie Darko again, alone, last night in bed, I was just as impressed as I was at 16. Being set in the '80s, the film hasn’t dated in the way other films have because the '80s are still the '80s, and Joy Division still sounds great.
Photo: Dale Robinette/Flower Films/REX/Shutterstock.