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Gregg Araki again visits sexual issues with 'Kaboom'

Attractive young people work through issues of sexual identity in the filmmaker's latest.

January 23, 2011|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Director Gregg Araki, whose film "aboom'" will be screened at the Sundance Film Festival, is photographed in Hollywood.
Director Gregg Araki, whose film "aboom'" will be screened… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

If filmmaker Gregg Araki once described his 1997 movie "Nowhere" as "'Beverly Hills, 90210' on acid," then it might be best to think of the writer-director's newest feature, "Kaboom," as something like "Gossip Girl" gone gonzo.

The story of an 18-year-old pansexual film student named Smith (Thomas Dekker), the film boasts all of the hallmarks of Araki's work: Attractive young people work through issues of sexual identity (in part by having a lot of sex in various gender permutations) while snapping off pop-savvy witticisms to a hip soundtrack.

But "Kaboom" is arguably Araki's least arch feature and somehow his most sincere, all the more remarkable given its late-breaking left turn into a paranoia plot involving an apocalyptic religious cult. The film was selected to have its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and is available through video-on-demand as part of Sundance Selects before opening in Los Angeles on Feb. 4.

"It sounds weird to say because the movie is so crazy and bizarre, but 'Kaboom' is really the most autobiographical movie I have ever made," Araki, a graduate of film programs at UC Santa Barbara and USC and startlingly youthful at 51, said recently in a Hollywood coffee shop. "I remember those undergraduate years as incredibly angst-ridden and traumatic, but when you look back on that period once you're older it almost seems like the best years of your life. With the character of Smith I'm almost looking back at this younger version of myself."

Araki originally gained notice as part of a group of young writer-directors who brought an unabashedly gay and self-aware sensibility to independent film, a movement that came to be known as the "New Queer Cinema." With his mid-'90s "teenage apocalypse trilogy," including 1995's "The Doom Generation," Araki realized a cinematic universe all his own, one that was sardonic, sexy, art-damaged, hip-talking and often over-the-top.

In the years since, he's continued to operate largely in that outré orbit, with two notable exceptions: "Mysterious Skin" in 2004 was a sensitive, crushing chronicle of molestation and abuse that helped launch Joseph Gordon-Levitt from young star to adult actor, and 2007's "Smiley Face" placed Anna Faris in an outrageously drugged-out comedy. The poppy playfulness and bedroom high jinks of "Kaboom" mark something of a return to the spirit of his earlier filmmaking.

"It's not an intentional step backward on my part, I don't want to regress in any sort of way," noted Araki of the new film's continuity with his previous work. " 'Kaboom' is really a different movie in that I really wanted to make a cult movie like 'Doom Generation' for the next generation. I feel like there are no movies being made like that anymore."

It is true that there are few modern films one could liken to "Kaboom," which follows Smith as he enjoys some no-strings-attached action from a free-spirited blond girl named London (Juno Temple) while secretly pining for his buff surfer roommate Thor (Chris Zylka). His best friend, Stella (Haley Bennett), gets involved with a woman (Roxane Mesquida) who might be a witch. When Smith's drug-induced hallucinations at a party lead him down a rabbit hole of hidden conspiracies, he begins to realize that his mother (Kelly Lynch) may not have told him the entire truth about his absent father.

"It can be as meaningful or meaningless as you want it to be," said Dekker, who was an avowed Araki fan long before being cast in "Kaboom," in a separate interview regarding the film's freewheeling storytelling. "I call 'Kaboom' his greatest hits, like everything he's ever talked about is rolled into one movie."

Though all Araki's films are seen as bearing the signature stamp of his directorial style, Araki himself has never had the outsized persona of a John Waters or Quentin Tarantino. He even declined when once asked to appear as himself in an episode of the HBO television show "Entourage" filmed during Sundance.

Though "Kaboom" marks his eighth feature in a row to play there, a run that dates to 1992's "The Living End," Araki said he doesn't know how much insight he actually has into the signature festival of American independent film.

"People think because I've been so many times I'm some great expert on the evolution of it," Araki said of Sundance, "but as a filmmaker you don't really see the change of it. It's always the same to me — a screening, a Q&A, a bunch of press, craziness, a couple parties and then you go home and you're sick. That is exactly the same. The number of people or the influence of it, I don't know about that. It seems pretty much the same to me."

Producer Andrea Sperling got her start on some of Araki's seminal films, though their collaboration on "Kaboom" marked the first time the pair had worked together in more than 10 years. She said she has been pleasantly surprised by the way Araki's movies have continued to resonate with younger audiences.

"I've found that a lot of kids in their teens and 20s know Gregg's work," Sperling said.

Araki said "Kaboom" was made for those fans as much as for the older cinéastes who've long been following his work. Before the era of the "It Gets Better" campaign, the online initiative designed to give gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered teens hope of a bright future, Araki's movies have signaled to outsiders of all stripes that wherever they might be, they are not alone.

"One of the main inspirations for it is running into these fans of some of my older movies like 'Doom Generation' and 'Nowhere' who would say, 'I watched that movie a thousand times,'" Araki said of "Kaboom." "And it's frequently from people who are young and outsiders, who are gay or live in some weird part of the country.

"It's something for them, that gives them something to cling to," he continued. "It's their movie, it's their thing. So I kind of made the movie with that audience in mind."

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