When Stefan Ulstein, who teaches a film course at Bellevue (WA) Christian High School, and his wife Jeanne attended a Donnie Darko press conference at the Seattle International Film Festival, several of his sharpest students perked up to express their interest in the film. The Ulsteins, surprised to hear that these teens were so into a movie that bombed at the box office when it first released in 2001, sat down with three of them—Kili Bergau, Jimmy Kelly, and Dani Kubo—to discuss the film's merits. The film has become something of a cult favorite among teens and young adults, and is now being re-released to theaters in a longer "director's cut" edition.

Director Richard Kelly

Director Richard Kelly

"Donnie Darko tanked when it opened in theaters in 2001," said director Richard Kelly. "It came out and just bombed." Since the short-lived theatrical release, a cult following has arisen around the film. Fans, many of them teenagers, watch Donnie Darko on DVD, cable and late-night movie screenings. They chat endlessly online. Kelly says that "groundswell of support made it possible to re-release it now."

Kelly says the new director's cut, released to theaters this week, is 20 minutes longer than the original, and thus more understandable.

Donnie Darko is a time-space fantasy based on a teenager who he hears voices and talks to a gigantic rabbit. Whether all of this is happening in real time or in Donnie's mind isn't completely clear, which makes for a fascinating ride. Things start out normally enough, with a standard suburban family going about their business, but then a jet engine falls out of the sky, crushing the Darko house. Then things get really weird: The rabbit tells Donnie the world will end in 28 days. Donnie, undergoing psychiatric therapy but refusing to take his meds, later finds a cryptic text that seems to hold the secret keys to the countdown. Strange things continue to happen throughout—and it's just that quirkiness and unpredictability that seems to attract a young audience.

Kili, one of our students, said she's seen Donnie Darko ten times: "I don't usually watch a film that many times. I'm more of a book reader, and I do read books over and over if I like them." Dani had seen it five times, and Jimmy once. They also consider themselves book readers first and filmgoers second.

Jimmy said he likes the movie "because the characters are real. That's why I like The Great Gatsby so much, because I can believe in the characters." Kili agreed: "Donnie is a very normal kid in some ways. He likes the Smurfs, but then he's a superhero because he can impact many lives. He is able to save the love of his life."

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Dani added, "I like the individual scenes. You can take any one of them by itself and get a lot of meaning from it." "Exactly," said Jimmy. "It has ideas about time travel and freedom. As soon as I saw it, I said that I'd see it again and take some friends."

All three students liked the music—and the rebellious aspect of Donnie's personality. In the film, a health teacher has adapted the ramblings of the New Age motivational speaker, and says that all of life's choices are rooted in fear. "Donnie just says that's a bunch of garbage," said Dani. "All teenagers would like to be able to do that. In school, we sometimes have to do things that don't make any sense to us, but we have to pretend that they do. Donnie just says it."

Donnie also floods the school, giving everyone a day off. "I would not like it at all if somebody did that to our school," said Kili, "but there didn't seem to be much worth saving at his school." Added Jimmy, "And he gets to spend the day off with the girl, which is any guy's idea of a good day!"

Donnie's parents are good people, but aren't up to the task of raising a boy who talks to giant bunnies. They are not drawn as buffoons, though. Parents of teenagers will relate to their unsuccessful attempts to find out what is eating at Donnie. A lot of teenagers will relate to Mr. and Mrs. Darko's inability to see what is obvious to everyone but themselves. "It's a pretty normal family, "said Kili. "Donnie does things just to get a response from his dad." She laughs, "I'm tempted to vote for Kerry just to bug my dad."

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jenna Malone in a scene from the film

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jenna Malone in a scene from the film

Donnie exists on the margins of high school society, but he is befriended by Gretchen (Jenna Malone), an earnest, intellectually open classmate. Gretchen provides the only real contact Donnie has with reality. His increasingly anti-social acts frighten everyone, but Gretchen sees past the craziness to the heart of a troubled kid. Donnie and Gretchen's relationship provides the human contact that anchors the film in reality. Kelly has taken some huge chances with such an ambitious film. In the hands of a lesser director, it might unravel and become ridiculous. With this director and cast, however, it is tight, compelling and believable.

English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) is an idealist who tries to educate her students rather than occupy their time, but the local gossips get her in their sights as soon as the school year begins. "When I saw the screenplay," Barrymore said, "I knew I had to be in it. I would take any part. I just loved it. I love smart, challenging films—like Donnie Darko—that are thoughtful and entertaining at the same time." As executive producer, Barrymore helped finance the film through her Flower Productions.

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When asked about the film's devoted following among teenagers and young adults, director Kelly remarked, "Young people aren't stupid. They want thoughtful films, but they don't want to be told what to think. This is a film based on some of the ideas of Stephen Hawking, and kids are interested." Mary McDonnell, who plays Donnie's mother, added, "I think kids are smart. My daughter saw it with her classmates and they continue to talk about it. Boys and girls are equally drawn to it." Malone agreed: "I'm nineteen, and I want films that will challenge me. I want films that are about people like me who are thinking. But I look around and I can't find them."

This seems to be the big drawing card for Donnie Darko. Young people see themselves and their own struggles in this movie. The time/space/meaning questions are similar to the ones they are asking as they grow into adulthood.

Donny Darko shouldn't be pegged as merely a "teen" film, though. It is a wild ride for anyone who wants to think a bit while watching a delightfully entertaining movie. It's the kind of film that Quentin Tarantino would make if he were a better filmmaker. Like Kill Bill, it is full of interwoven plots and seemingly random story lines. But unlike Kill Bill, it all comes together. It's about the Big Ideas. It's not just a bag of cinematic tricks. Donnie Darko runs on a great premise, exceptional writing and solid performances. It's a terrific film. Why it failed in its first release is a mystery.

Donnie Darko is rated R for language, some drug use and violence.