#ChemMovieCarnival – On teenage angst and the importance of a great science teacher

Here we go with another of the bloggy doggy’s great Chemistry-themed carnivals, and this time it’s the #ChemMovieCarnival.

Although it’s not really chemistry-related, I’ve chosen a scene from the 2001 Richard Kelly cult classic, Donnie Darko. This is possibly my most favourite movie ever, definitely top three, and I’ll even admit to enjoying the director’s cut more than the original film.

The really short (~20 s) scene in question involves the main character Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) walking home from school with the new kid Gretchen (Jena Malone) and they have a conversation about an assignment Gretchen has been set by the science teacher Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle).

Gretchen Ross: Look, I should go. For physics, Monnitoff is having me write this essay. Greatest invention ever to benefit mankind.

Donnie Darko: It’s Monnitoff. But that’s easy. Antiseptics. Like the whole sanitation thing. Joseph Lister, 1895. Before antiseptics, there was no sanitation, especially in medicine.

Gretchen Ross: You mean soap?

Leaving aside any factual errors in Donnie’s statement, you can see from the screencap below that Gretchen has this completely incredulous look on her face, awash with teenage attitude.  I think part of the reason I was so drawn to this movie initially is that the interactions between the characters are so authentic and believable against the backdrop of some out-and-out batshit craziness.


I really like this scene, and the question it poses, because although I’d largely prefer to forget the bulk of my high school years, I was lucky enough to have had one or two passionate teachers like Monnitoff (although nowhere NEAR as good looking) who would set assignments or class discussions around these kind of ‘big questions’ topics. For me, it was these types of lessons, early introductions to philosophy of science, critical thinking and the scientific method which really propelled me towards science as a career.

The importance of a strong grounding in the sciences in school is something I feel can’t be overestimated. The science teacher in this movie is an ex-academic, and the students find him approachable and knowledgeable. He is happy to take Donnie’s questions after class, and also lends him a book which plays a critical part in the plot of the movie. In another scene with Donnie and Prof Monitoff, we see the portrayal of the unfortunate position of public school science teachers in the US. Donnie is a bright and curious young man looking for guidance from a teacher, but on the question of God and religion, Monitoff is forced to end the discussion for fear of being fired. It’s unlikely that Kelly’s intention was to demonstrate the importance of an enthusiastic science teach on young minds, rather it is a by-product of his careful character development in this film.


Another ‘big question’, and one of the main themes of the film is time travel. But I’ve already not talked about chemistry in this post, so I’m certainly not going to not talk about physics as well!