When the World Goes Kaboom

Alice Gregory | February 10, 2011

Gregg Araki’s Kaboom might just have the best promotional materials ever. The poster is rainbow and kaleidoscopic — like a still from a Fruitopia commercial but with people instead of pineapples. The press release describes it as “a hyper-stylized Twin Peaks for the Coachella Generation, featuring a gorgeous young cast.” Araki, a pivotal figure in queer cinema and the man behind a multi-pack of indie treats (The Living End, The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin, etc.), gives us a sun-soaked horror-comedy with nose rings that twinkle and orgasms that blast away again and again to the sound of thunderstorms.

If Lisa Frank had designed a boy, it would have been our protagonist, Smith, played by Thomas Dekker. He’s a timid college freshman, majoring in film studies. His sexuality though is “undeclared.” His lips are the color of bubblegum, and his eyes are so turquoise, they’re almost tacky. He and his best friend, Stella (Haley Bennett), a former goth with a dry wit and tangerine hair, navigate campus life, paying special attention to its more prurient parts. The characters they encounter are familiar, though sexier and campier than the archetypes they represent. Smith suspects and hopes that his roommate, Thor, a boorish blond surfer who tries to give himself blowjobs, is really gay. He enters an undefined sexual relationship with London, a high-spirited and promiscuous English girl, played by Juno Temple. Meanwhile, Stella is sleeping with Lorelei, a luscious lesbian with supernatural powers. Amidst the threesomes and raves and laced desserts, Smith slowly starts to uncover a mass conspiracy, complete with masked men, murdered twins, and a hierarchical cult; it involves not only everyone he’s met since coming to college but his dead father too.

The story is made up of nested realities that are revealed by way of shocking and often silly cuts (a gory bludgeoning turns into a plate of mutilated pie). Its highest-pitched scenes are scored to crescendos that accelerate at almost-intolerable rates until they climax, and we’re dropped into some other silent, unrelated place. The dialogue is reminiscent of a glossed up Ghost World or a Donnie Darko with the lights turned on. The script is peppered with tweet-worthy insults. After having sex with Smith for the first time, London tells him that she’s “had pelvic exams that last longer than that.” Stella doesn’t share Smith’s swoony enthusiasm for Thor. “I’ve met plants with better personalities,” she groans.

Like in any horror movie, peripheral figures turn out to be central schemers and those who we’re inclined to forget of course end up crucial plot advancers. We’re taught to expect retroactive explanation from psychological thrillers. We like to walk out of them feeling as though we’ve reached the end of a narrative that’s situated within a fixed logic, one whose order was only obscured at times by a lack of information. But Araki isn’t playing that game. And for a world without rules, Kaboom doesn’t leave you feeling resentful or cheated or cheaply deceived. Araki has that rare directorial charisma that’s just so generally appealing that his films are likeable for stupid and smart reasons alike. One could imagine Kaboom changing the life of a stoned 10th grader, but it really does have defensible moments of Clueless-level ingenuity. Kaboom’s juiciness actually deserves to be projected on the walls of whatever Bushwick party it’s surely going to find its way onto. There are bright colors, glittery explosions, and smiley faces. It’s a kind of kiddie porn (porn directed by kids).

Kaboom, weird as it may be, is firmly set in the present day with orienting references to Lady Gaga and American Idol. The mystery at the film’s center is reliant on computer communication: mysterious web videos and URLs to temporary Web sites sent over instant message. Witty banter, eatable-looking actors, and psychedelic pleasure aside, Araki’s most impressive accomplishment here is his rendering of the Internet as a schizophrenic dimension, where bright blue links take you to unexpected screens and ads for items you’ve never heard of pop out of nowhere. Memes, those haunting images of senseless ubiquity, blink like PTSD flashbacks. Inconceivable things are only a click away. Without pandering or preaching, Araki forces us to feel the sometimes-scintillating, sometimes-sinister effects of our digital age.