Filmmaker John Waters (Pink Flamingo’s, Hairspray, Cry Baby) is apparently partially responsible for Gregg Araki’s decision to make Kaboom. After seeing and loving Mysterious Skin, Araki’s beautiful and powerful 2004 film about the residual impact of child sexual abuse, Waters confessed to then wanting to see ‘another old school Gregg Araki movie’. Throughout the 1990s Araki had delivered a collection of raw and subversive films with a distinctive punk aesthetic. By challenging the dominant and mainstream representations of sexuality as fixed and heterosexual, Araki’s films were some of the more radical, anarchic and transgressive examples of the New Queer Cinema movement. Araki’s characters were often angry, self-destructive and out of control – cultural fringe dwellers who had little interest in conforming to any social conventions about gender and sexuality. In particular his Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, consisting of Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997), were bold fusions of art house and underground cinema filled with black humour, bursts of violence, sex, drugs and nihilism.
With its poignancy, sensitivity and powerful command of film style, Mysterious Skin was therefore a major development for Araki as a filmmaker. Having evolved into such an impressive and ‘respectable’ filmmaker capable of creating such an emotionally rich film, it is easy to understand why Waters loved the idea of Araki returning to his more reckless ways. Fortunately, Araki also loved the idea and the result is the very playful, funny and energetic Kaboom.
So much of Kaboom is classic Araki from the extremely cool post-punk and shoegazer soundtrack to the hyper-real look of the film, created by dramatic overexposure and bold colours. The American college setting at times even resembles a René Magritte painting and the blurring of dreams and drug hallucinations into the storyline further enhances the surreal tone of the film. The actors playing the various college students are young and gorgeous, and the most appealing characters are the ones who are unapologetically sexual and non-conformists. This is a film filled with beautiful people but free of the generic vacuous and vapid representations of beauty that is so often presented in mainstream cinema.
As to be expected, sexuality is a transitional force in Kaboom with even the film’s lead character Smith (Thomas Dekker) preferring to describe himself as ‘undeclared’ instead of labelling himself as ‘bisexual’. In fact, Araki has a lot of fun with male sexuality with Smith’s attraction to his straight, dumb, beautiful, surfer dude roommate Thor (Chris Zylka) resulting in a lot of observations about the homoerotic behaviour of heterosexual men. As one character comments, ‘straight guys are gayer than gay guys’. Curiously, the female characters remain fixed in their identities as either straight or lesbian but that’s possibly Araki deliberately subverting the frequency in which women are portrayed as being able to easily shift their sexual gaze to instead just focus on the guys exploring alternatives. The overall result is a refreshing change from the heterosexual male perspective of sex and sexuality that is usually portrayed in cinema.
However, Kaboom is not just about a group of college students who have a lot of sex with each other (although it could have easily sustained itself if it was) but it also gradually introduces a paranoid conspiracy plot that involves witchcraft and a secret society. Thriller and science fiction themes become increasingly pronounced as the film progresses but it is important to keep in mind that Araki is not playing by the rules. The combination of self-awareness, fantasy and sexy teen angst may suggest that Kaboom evokes the sort of film Joss Whedon would create, but it has a lot more in common with one of Takashi Miike’s more outlandish films with its gleeful and hilarious disregard for generic conventions. If the conclusion of the film leaves you bewildered or frustrated rather than hysterically laughing then it’s highly likely that you may not have been in tune with the tone, style and attitude of the film to begin with.
Kaboom is endlessly exhilarating. Its deranged pastiche of soap opera, science fiction, apocalyptic thriller and teen film with Araki’s punk sensibility, wicked humour, New Queer Cinema politics and cinematic craftsmanship is pure fun. It doesn’t have the angry and confronting nihilism of Araki’s 1990s films, but it does still contain his ability to collapse boundaries, challenge conventions, deconstruct sexuality and celebrate diversity while being sexy and funny. John Waters will no doubt love it.