Five years ago, I saw Zach Braff's Garden State and I thought it had something to say, but watching it recently, I felt nothing, other than the memory of the person I was at the time it hit theaters. Today, the movie can be pointed to as one of the first in a type of independent film for twenty-somethings that's since cornered the industry. The more of them I see, though, the clearer they are as not-so-meaningful forms of wish fulfillment. With the occasional exception, all of the films present the kinds of uniquely exasperated, idiosyncratic, flawed-but-clever people the intended audience would probably like to see themselves as. They're the hipster American dream, filled with slacker dudes like Braff's character, who throws his walled-in life away and scores the sexy, off-beat girl in the process, and eventually expanding to whip-smart, pop-culture junkie girls like Ellen Page's Juno, seemingly on-the-ball but secretly still trying to find themselves. Now we have Dakota Skye, and at first it looks like then film's going to take all of its cues from those movies, right down to the loose, wandering xylophone score, but at the last moment it makes a shift that just barely manages to save it.
We meet Dakota (Eileen Boylan), one of those movie high schoolers who wears a beat up, oversized cargo jacket to avoid unwanted guy attention and ripped jeans to represent her individuality. Truth be told, though, she is unique. No matter who she's listening to or what they're talking about, if they're lying, she knows the truth. Not just the broad strokes, either, but the details as well. "There are no lies in my world," she says in the opening voiceover, "or there are nothing but." Dakota's inability to avoid knowing what everyone around her really means places her at a distance from her best friend Beth (Dominique Generaux) and turns her decision to choose Kevin (J.B. Ghuman, Jr.) as her boyfriend into process of elimination. As she enters the 11th grade, Dakota is uninterested in cramming for the SATs the way Beth is, and is resigned to a future of going nowhere. At least, she is until a stoner kid named Jonah shows up.
Jonah is Kevin's best friend, and Dakota immediately notices something interesting about him: Jonah doesn't lie, and she can't understand why not. She asks him leading questions, and he answers them truthfully, and the more times she fails to get him to drop what she assumes is an act, the more she's drawn to him. The two begin a bit of an impromptu relationship, stopping short of climbing into bed with each other given their mutual loyalty to Kevin. Uncomfortable with the scenario he's inadvertently created, Jonah leaves, and Dakota realizes she'll have to make a choice: continue on the unconclusive, plan-free path she's already halfway down, or take a firm stance and leave it all behind.
The easiest and laziest way to define a movie character, especially when they're depicted in a romantic relationship, is to have the character drop a few nuggets of big-picture philosophy. There's a great chunk of dialogue in Garden State about the point when the home you grew up in stops being your true home, and I'm sure lots of people have seen that scene and felt like they related to the way the Zach Braff character feels. Yet it's an open-ended thought, and there isn't a thing about it that tells you who that character is or where he came from, just a thought he presumably had, broken down into an easy-to-grasp nugget of truth. Dakota Skye comes dangerously close to defining Jonah using similar pearls of wisdom, as if his hipster observations about The Way Things Are are an acceptable substitute for character, but writer Chad Shonk ultimately arrives at a place where the audience doesn't need to care whether or not Jonah is the right guy. As evidenced by the title, this is a movie about Dakota, learning how to be herself, and not about Jonah or their relationship.
Dakota describes her truth-telling ability as similar to reading the subtitles during a foreign movie, and director John Humber takes this concept literally, slapping text honesty on the screen whenever someone tells Dakota a little white lie. Clever device, I suppose, but to an extent, it's unnecessary; most of the "honesty" on screen is basically just jokes, and the few specific, important nuggets of truth probably could have been worked in another way. Dakota also describes her talent as a "superpower", which is a much better idea that eventually develops into a fairly clever through-line. When the movie starts, she's at odds with her talent, because in her mind, it makes her better than those around her. She theorizes that Jonah could be her arch nemesis, the one person in the world who can defeat her special power. Thankfully, it doesn't boil down as simply as that, and the other angles she eventually finds in it are interesting to consider.
Most of the performances are pretty good. The best of the three leads, oddly enough, is Ghuman as Kevin. The character is written as a fairly nice guy to begin with, and the actor brings lots of charisma to the role, making sure it isn't an easy choice for Dakota to pick between Jonah and Kevin. Kevin never turns into the kind of cartoon villain that other movies would have eventually resorted to, and it makes the dynamic much more interesting. I wasn't totally sold on Eileen Boylan, mainly because I wasn't sure I liked her disaffected, indie-movie persona she exhibits for awhile, but a scene where Jonah asks her to trust him ("I can't...I really can't.") really turned her performance around in my mind. Only Ian Nelson failed to win me over, and not just because the actor has a vague resemblance to Braff. Jonah always seems a little smarmy, and Nelson never gets past it.
There are a few other nitpicks I could make. Kevin is in a band, and a scene during the movie takes place at his show. No offense to whoever wrote the song, but despite all the characters praising it up and down, I wasn't a fan. Kevin follows his band's song by singing a cover for Dakota, which is much better. Some of the dialogue is also clunky, including one of the only parts where Dakota lets out a string of profanity, which seems awkward and out-of-place, and the scene where Jonah first reveals that he likes Dakota feels a little like A Scene in A Movie. The first scene in the movie is actually a fantasy sequence, and John Humber mentions on his commentary that some people didn't notice. I'm with them; it isn't very clear. Lastly, I just watched another movie that noted smoking in the rating, which as far as I remember, contained less than ten seconds of footage where characters were holding cigars. Dakota Skye's R rating makes no note of it, but there's barely a single scene in this picture where Jonah or Dakota doesn't light up a cigarette. Obviously, this is a personal complaint, but it seemed unnecessary.
Near the end of the movie, right before the turning point, Dakota sits in a movie theater between Kevin and Jonah, coming to a realization about her situation. "Knowing everything doesn't make you wise. Knowing the truth doesn't make you superior. Knowing your problem doesn't solve it," she says in the voiceover. Similarly, knowing what a character thinks and who a character chooses to love doesn't tell you why they are the way they are, and it's a huge relief to have Dakota Skye realize the same thing, even if it takes most of the film to get there. It's legitimately satisfying to hear our heroine make these comments, and then watch her make a real decision based on those considerations. Hopefully, the independent film scene will follow suit, and instead of tired screenwriter epiphanies about living "life", we'll get movies that are actually about it.
The Juno influence extends itself to the DVD case, which uses orange, white and the tiniest touch of green, mainly on the back cover. The image on the front looks Photoshopped, and there's even a weird effect on the bottom half of the image. Inside the case, there's a booklet listing other Koch releases, and the disc has an actual untouched photograph of Dakota on it. What a quirky and unusual concept!
Dakota Skye is a modern, legitimate indie, and the 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer reflects that. The main detraction from the very digital-looking image is poorly-defined contrast, evident during the very first scene, where the grass and darkness is never quite as black as it should be. The blazing white sky also gets blown out every once in awhile. Other than that, the presentation looks as good as a film shot with these kind of cameras can look.
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound does almost nothing. At one point in the film, Dakota and Kevin sing a song on stage, but other than that, I didn't hear anything coming out of the back channels other than the vaguest, ambient sounds. I doubt anyone would notice the difference if they switched on the 2.0 track instead. English subtitles are also included, although they occasionally interfere with the movie's burned-in "truth" subtitles.
Humber and Shonk contribute a good audio commentary. They make friendly jokes about the production, and dispense plenty of facts, some of which confirmed my suspicions (like the influence of John Brion's I ♥ Huckabees score on the film's music), some of which addressed my complaints (I'm not alone on the smoking issue) and a few were unexpected (apparently Eileen Boylan loves doing the robot). There aren't any dry spots, and it's still as entertaining at the end as it is when it starts, making it one of the more consistent and informative commentaries I've heard recently. Well worth a listen for anyone who enjoyed the film.
"Truth Behind the Lies: The Making of Dakota Skye" (26:32) is interesting and candid while covering a range of topics, starting with the initial push from Harold Ramis to make the movie, moving the script from Atlanta to Phoenix and casting, before moving into scene-by-scene breakdowns including the shoot at the Grand Canyon and Ghuman's first-time singing experience. The piece is almost all talking head interviews, which is refreshing after endless, clip-heavy EPKs that are little more than extended trailers. Two short, amusing additional interviews (1:49 and 2:10) each present a question to the cast and crew (a pivotal question from the plot, and what superpower they would choose).
A reel of outtakes (5:25) is more interesting as a slice of the production life than as a blooper reel, revealing a few low-budget shooting quirks like cars being pushed and taped-together microphones. A photo gallery (60 stills) is fine, I suppose, but no more or less useful than DVD photo galleries ever are. Lastly, the original trailer (1:12) and 3 character teaser ads called "Meet Dakota", "Meet Jonah" and "Meet Kevin" (0:50, 0:55 and 0:41) are collected. Shockingly, nothing at all automatically plays when you put the disc in! It plays a release company logo and goes straight to the menu! I'm as shocked as you are.
Dakota Skye comes out on top in the end, and the DVD package is pretty good. Given the number of independents that take a good idea and ultimately waste it, I'll just barely round up my opinion that you should consider renting it to a light recommendation.
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