Sunday, March 13, 2011

Teenage apocalypse redux

Back in the ‘90s, Gregg Araki directed the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy. Filled with doomsday scenarios and showing exceptionally good taste in clothes and music, this unholy trinity (comprised of Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere) established Araki as an unpredictable gay filmmaker who refused to be pinned down by the conventions of New Queer Cinema. In 2004, he had a breakthrough with Mysterious Skin, a heartbreaking and startlingly gorgeous adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel. Some critics heralded Mysterious Skin as the dawn of a new, mature phase in Araki’s career, but the Japanese-American director continued to defy expectation. In 2007, he made the stoner comedy Smiley Face (featuring a seriously funny lead performance by Anna Faris). His new film, Kaboom, is basically Part 4 of his teenage apocalypse series. It’s a lot of fun to watch, even though there’s something a little irksome about a filmmaker who’s so clearly regressed.

Like The Doom Generation and Nowhere, Kaboom is 20% sex, 80% movie. Much of that sex involves two couples: College freshman Smith (Thomas Dekker) and his new fun buddy, London (a spectacularly exhibitionist performance by Juno Temple); and Smith’s BFF, Stella (Haley Bennett), and her girlfriend, Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), who may or may not be a witch. Smith’s non-mating rituals include pining for his himbo-surfer roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka), and avoiding the members of a cult who like to wear animal masks.

The movie sometimes resembles This Is How the World Ends, an MTV pilot that Araki directed a decade ago. The heroes of both films confide in a lesbian BFF, and both are motivated by recurring dreams involving beautiful women. Given its title, This Is How the World Ends presumably would have developed an apocalyptic plot if it had lasted longer than a single, 30-minute episode, and Kaboom is very much about how the world ends. These similarities may explain why Araki has returned to familiar territory; he may have wanted to finish what he started with his failed MTV series.

Still, the movie definitely represents a step backward. Smith doesn't have the heart of Dark Smith and the other soulful teenage heroes played by James Duval in Totally F***ed, The Doom Generation and Nowhere. Kaboom also lacks the unforgettable imagery of those films – think of the surreal design of the bedrooms in Nowhere, or the Quickie Mart massacre in Doom Generation – and it closes on an inexcusably cheesy special-effects shot. Fans won’t be disappointed by the clever dialogue (“It’s a well-known fact that dreams are just your brain taking a dump at the end of the day; they don’t mean anything”) and the music (including Cut Copy, Ladytron and Explosions in the Sky), but they might get an uneasy sense of déjà vu.

The film has been called “the gay Donnie Darko,” a comparison that has a certain kind of symmetry. It’s hard to imagine Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult phenomenon without the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy. (Kelly even acknowledges Araki’s influence by casting Duval in the role of Frank the Giant Bunny Rabbit.) But I doubt Kaboom will inspire endless debate about the intricacies of its plot in the same way that Darko did; the conspiracy surrounding Smith isn’t meant to be taken that seriously.

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