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On October 2, 1988, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a troubled teenager living in Middlesex, Virginia, is awakened and led outside by a figure in a monstrous rabbit costume, who introduces himself as “Frank” and tells him the world will end in 28 days. At dawn, Donnie returns home to find a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom. His older sister, Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), informs him the FAA investigators don’t know where it came from.
Donnie tells his psychotherapist Dr. Thurman (Katharine Ross) about his continuing visits from Frank. Acting under Frank’s influence, he floods his school by damaging a water main. He also begins dating new student Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), who has moved to town with her mother under a new identity to escape her violent stepfather. Conservative gym teacher Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant) blames the flooding on the influence of the short story “The Destructors“, assigned by dedicated English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), and begins teaching attitude lessons taken frommotivational speaker Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). Donnie rebels against these lessons, leading to friction between Kitty and Donnie’s mother Rose (Mary McDonnell).
Donnie asks his science teacher Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) about time travel after Frank brings up the topic, and is given the book The Philosophy of Time Travel, written by Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland), a former science teacher at the school who is now a seemingly senile old woman.
Dr. Thurman tells Donnie’s parents that he is detached from reality, and that his visions of Frank are “daylight hallucinations”, symptomatic of paranoid schizophrenia. Donnie disrupts a speech being given by Jim Cunningham by insulting him in front of the student body, then burns down Cunningham’s house on instructions from Frank. When police find evidence of a child pornography operation in the house’s remains, Cunningham is arrested. During a hypnotherapy session, Donnie confesses his crimes to Dr. Thurman and says that Frank will soon kill someone.
Rose agrees to replace Kitty as chaperone for her daughter Samantha’s (Daveigh Chase) dance troupe in Los Angeles, so Kitty can testify in Cunningham’s defense; with her husband Eddie (Holmes Osborne) in New York on business, her older children are home alone.