Kaboom Dir. Gregg Araki

[IFC Films; 2010]

Styles: teen sex comedy, sci-fi, thriller
Others: American Pie, Southland Tales

Kaboom feels like a throwback to those American teen sex comedies of the 90s, movies that taught millions of young people that studying for class was less important than strategizing how to get laid. Yet it’s highly unlikely that the same crowd will turn up for indie stalwart Gregg Araki’s latest, which in its first five minutes depicts a tender dream of homosexual lust, steeped in the darkest blue. This is a shame, because the film, which won the first-ever Queer Palm at Cannes for contributing to LGBT issues, is tailor-made to swelter all audiences, with a pulse running through each candy-colored frame. With the speed of a sugar rush, this unabashedly progressive bedroom romp takes place in a world where college students casually reference the Kinsey scale and conceptions of “gay” and “straight” are pretty lame. Not to mention that nearly every character is incredibly attractive, with ear-catching names like Smith, Thor, London… and Stella. Come on, who didn’t have a gorgeous, sarcasm-spouting friend named Stella in college? (Only in the movies.) But Araki doesn’t leave it at that; he throws in a sci-fi conspiracy thriller along with those tips for cunnilingus. So you have Kaboom, about as idealized (and exhausting) a vision of contemporary American youth as you’ll find in the local arthouse, but which also reveals itself to be self-consciously throwaway as its confections are dished out.

In print, Kaboom would resemble a comic-book fantasy, and by the end you might believe it. The protagonist, Smith (Thomas Dekker), is a film studies major at the College of Creative Arts (ha!). The subject fascinates him because, he claims, cinema as we know it may become extinct in a few years. Maybe so, yet this voiced-over aside, like many other bits of the film, quickly gets eclipsed by more important facts: his hetero roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka), is very hot (and very dumb — “exactly my type,” Smith admits); he eats a drugged cookie at a party and meets lady London (Juno Temple), who, because she has “a thing for queers,” just about forces him into bed; and then on the way back to his dorm he has a vision of some scary people in animal masks terrorizing a mysterious red-haired girl (Nicole LaLiberte). When he and his bi-curious bestie Stella (Haley Bennett) try to figure out exactly what the fuck is going on, Araki shifts into thriller territory, filling the remainder of the film with red herrings and bizarre tonal shifts that, in their brevity, make it resemble a no-bullshit version of Southland Tales. Soon enough, though, Kaboom becomes predictable in its unpredictability, and it’s unclear whether Araki wants us to laugh at these devices or be genuinely confounded; it’s a mixture that can get a little boring.

But while the world may be telling Smith that it’s going to end, these overtly superficial outbursts are arresting so long as Araki thoroughly cuts and pastes onto his digital frame. The frenetic visual style gives the film itself a feeling of plasticity befitting its impossibly fresh-faced characters, incorporating a wealth of split screens, zooms, and superimpositions, and at one point even breaking into a hundred pieces. It’s fascinating that just as the characters themselves exist firmly within the 21st century — a Google Alert here, a flash-drive interception there — Araki succeeds in creating a heightened visual language that could only be conceived through digital photography. The experience of Kaboom is like watching a filmmaker at play, which in a sense befits the characters’ increasing sense of manipulation, both by the evolving conspiracy against themselves and their own rapidly instigated sexual games.

Whatever your sexual orientation, you can’t deny that Kaboom is a film that feels utterly of its time, providing refreshing boudoir politics in addition to its youthful glow. Such a photogenic genre mashup may very well be just as capable of cult status as it is crossover appeal. But while everybody gets fucked in this movie, it ends up feeling like a one-night stand. Perhaps the key to Araki’s film is in the dream that began this review, when Smith tells his roommate that gay sex is “raw, physical… there’s less mystery.” If Araki weren’t so set on making his own Twin Peaks-esque whodunit along with his aesthetic utopia, perhaps he could have sparked a revolution.

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