54th BFI London Film Festival: Kaboom (2010)

Kaboom, 2010.

Written and Directed by Gregg Araki.
Starring Thomas Dekker, Juno Temple, Haley Bennett and James Duval.


Kaboom focuses on Smith, a film student studying at college, lusting after his dumb-surfer room-mate, hooking up with British acquaintance London and hanging out with best friend Stella. He keeps getting recurring dreams of walking down a corridor lined with his friends, his mother, and two girls he doesn’t recognise. Things start to get complicated when he begins to encounter strange men wearing animal masks and a girl’s headless torso turns up in a dumpster.

I first came across Gregg Araki when a friend handed me a US uncut VHS of The Doom Generation, simply saying ‘You’ll love it’. He was right. The biting satire, the dumb on the surface yet scathingly critical dialogue (echoes of the seminal 80s hardcore band ‘Black Flag’), the ‘film student on speed’ editing, the fantastic music. I could go on, but the film’s very own tagline sums The Doom Generation up so well – Sex. Violence. Whatever. It’s the very definition of a cult movie, and has stubbornly refused to budge from my personal top ten despite the five years since I first saw it. His self-dubbed ‘Teen Apocalypse Trilogy‘, comprising of Doom Generation, Totally Fucked Up and Nowhere are all mini-masterpieces, while his breakthrough film The Living End is a riveting comment on homophobia, 90s apathy and the Bush administration.

In 2004, he got the mainstream critical success he’d long deserved, with the release of his harrowing yet sensitive portrayal of child abuse in Mysterious Skin. This film represented a change of tone for the director, moving away from the hyperactive cinematic-referencing of his cult work into a calm, serious tone that allows the story to truly unfold. However follow up film Smiley Face was a half-baked stoner comedy, good fun, but a major disappointment for a director of Araki’s calibre. So I approached Kaboom with a certain level of trepidation, particularly after I’d heard rumours of it being a bit iffy.

The first act of the film feels like a return to the days of his ‘Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy’ for Araki, with an ensemble cast of hedonistic characters hanging out, getting laid and spouting amazing dialogue like “That guy sounds like a fucking ass-tard”. The dialogue and deliberately stunted delivery feels almost like a mockery of ‘high class’ cinema, a celebration of the trash aesthetic with my friend noting that a lot of the dialogue sounds like it’s from the plot for a porn film. The second act was less inspired though, with Smith uncovering an ‘End of the World’ plot (another Araki obsession) and various plot points being thrown in rather hap-hazardly. It starts to feel a little ‘film-studenty’ and there’s a lot of dialogue explaining what’s going on, whereas some exposition in these scenes would have been much more welcome. All is forgiven though for the third act, in which Araki really kicks things into top gear. The story takes a zany turn with multiple bizarre revelations – psychics, ex-cult members, ‘The Resistance’ and an epic car chase sound tracked by Placebo’s ‘The Bitter End’. The final scene features the cult’s leader sitting slumped at a table in front of a red button, a vacant expression on his face, before he nonchalantly pushes it and the planet explodes! Gleefully ridiculous!

As I mentioned you’ve got Placebo over the final scenes and end credits, but Araki’s fascination with music extends past excellent soundtracking – he focuses on music as a sacred commodity (Stella’s birthday gift to Smith is a signed CD of his favourite band) and also as a way to bring people together. (Smith’s crush Oliver finds his email address via the Explosions in the Sky website).

Araki’s status as an Auteur director is re-established in Kaboom, certainly in a visual sense. The three frequent visual staples of Araki’s films – incredible, outlandish set design (see the black & white check hotel room in The Doom Generation), thematic colour schemes (bathing scenes in primary coloured light – blues and reds, a subtle tribute to Dario Argento perhaps?) and punky, over-the-top costume – are all present, proving that if nothing, Araki knows what makes for stunning mise-en-scene.

One of the strangest things about former flop Smiley Face was that it only really focused on one main character, as opposed to a circle of misfits, and also that that character was straight. Araki was a key figure of the New Queer Cinema movement of the 90s and as such the majority of his main characters were gay or bisexual, using the characters to critique the homophobia ingrained in Western society. For example, Totally Fucked Up consisted mostly of interviews with gay teens speaking of their experiences and the discriminations they’ve encountered. Kaboom’s two main protagonists – Smith and Stella are both gay/bi, but with society nowadays being much more forward thinking, there doesn’t seem to be as much homophobia to object against. The political subtext of his earlier work seems rather absent, or at least dialled down. The characters are not as mockingly nihilistic as his earlier creations and there’s a creeping sense that Kaboom, despite being an anarchic comedy akin to Araki’s former output, has lost the satirical bite which marked Araki as a master of intelligent yet wildly entertaining trash cinema. That doesn’t stop Kaboom being a hell of a lot of fun though.

Roger Holland

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