Belonging is a perception shaped within personal, social, cultural and historical context. While to most the concept only includes acceptance and harmony, there can be two sides to belonging, and Donnie Darko explores this idea through its characters and their context in the film. Donnie Darko is set against the backdrop of the 1988 Bush vs. Dukakis Presidential election; it represents 1980’s conservative America through the last 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds of Donnie Darko’s life. There is a strong theme of insecurity and isolation and many of the characters don’t belong throughout the film. These themes are represented by Kelly using a range of film techniques. The use of iconic references, such as fashion, news and music (INXS, Tears For Fears, Duran Duran, The Church) are used in the film to create a sense of conflict between warm nostalgia and a biting reminder of America’s cultural philosophy at the time, promoting greed and social responsibility. The seemingly cosy world of leaf blowers, power walkers and double sided fridges of suburbia hides a quiet malice underneath, and in the middle of all this is Donnie Darko. Social context can affect the sense of belonging, and Donnie’s society is far from desirable. His connection to it is tenuous at best; therefore he is shunned and feels he does not belong. The Scene “Head over Heels” introduces us to his world. As Donnie arrives at school, non diegetic sound, (“Head Over Heels” by Tears For Fears) sets the mood for the upside down world. Without a word of scripted dialogue, this scene tells a lot about what's happening around the school, taking us through hallways and classrooms, past pupils and teachers going about normal school life. The scene begins with an odd angle shot of the back of the school bus as Donnie and his friends exit (rebelling by going through the back door), Donnie walks slightly apart from everyone, even his friends, hinting at Donnie’s displacement from society and adding to the overall tone of the movie. This flows into a tracking shot that serves to briefly introduce all the key characters. Donnie’s relationship with these characters is crucial to the movie and affects his sense of belonging, whether positive or negative, throughout. Society’s ignorance is represented in a shot where the camera passes the school bully, snorting drugs barely half a metre away from the oblivious principle Cole. A shot of the schools mascot, a giant bull dog. The dog is mostly seen as a symbol of fidelity, but also follows blindly, indicative of the schools unquestioning faith in society. As a student, Donnie spends much of his time at school, so it has a significant effect on his negative sense of belonging.
We see clearly the sense of alienation Donnie feels from this world in the scene “Cunning Visions”. Ms Farmer, Donnie’s P.E teacher, idolises self help guru Jim Cunningham and adheres zealously to a narrow minded system of beliefs structured around a linear “Life Line” system, and works it into the curriculum.
"As you can see, the Life Line is divided into two polar extremes. Fear and love. Fear is in the negative energy spectrum. And love is in the positive energy spectrum.”
The “Cunning Visions” infomercial that accompanies this satirizes other self help programs, the close-ups of the overly tanned and charismatic Jim Cunningham combined with the stiff, scripted testimony of freed “victims of fear”. The program serves as a metaphor for Donnie’s context. The film’s recurring clash between the moral tunnel vision of the “Life Line” and those who seek to challenge its authority is the main cause of Donnie’s troubles. When asked to contribute to the "discussion" of fear and love, he argues, “You can’t just lump things into two categories, things aren’t that simple” insisting on the complexity of life. Unable to see any sense in these restrictive parameters, he feels out of place in an equally restrictive society.