Gregg Araki’s new film Kaboom has just had its UK premier as part of the 54th BFI London Film Festival. Araki is no stranger to the festival having in previous years showcased both Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face here in London. However, unlike these two films, Kaboom is an auteur piece and very much a return to form for the director.
In the early 1990’s Araki was part of the Queercore movement, borne out of a post-punk sensibility, films from this era have now come to be known as New Queer Cinema. Time may have moved on but Araki, unlike his contemporaries Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant, is still making films which are intrinsically counter-culture in their own way.
Having achieved critical success adapting Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin for the screen and having abandoned the overt sexuality that normally typifies his films in favour of all-out-comedy for Smiley Face, Kaboom is almost like a compilation of Araki’s greatest hits. Aesthetically, it revels in the directors’ trademark style that was first seen in the ‘Teen Apocalypse Trilogy’, kaleidoscopic colour schemes, outrageous costumes, sumptuous lighting and a script made entirely out of bad jokes and snappy one-liners.
Like most of Araki’s films, Kaboom is focused around sexually confused teenage boys, kick-ass lesbians and a whole heap of other stuff. Lead character Smith and his best friend Stella are college students, leading the normal student life of parties, one night stands and car crash relationships. A series of ominous dreams begin to blur the line between reality and fantasy and soon the pair find themselves in serious danger, trying to unravel a mystery and save the world. But it’s really not that serious. There are also witches, cults, murders, kidnappings, Lady Gaga jokes, sex, sex, more sex…oh and nuclear war. Sound ridiculous? Well it is, and it’s meant to be. Similar in tone to Nowhere, the plot is hilariously over the top and refuses to conform to anything you could easily categorise. Irreverent and ribald, it’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously without compromising on intelligence or artistry.
Our two heroes in Kaboom fit with the typical boy/girl stereotypes from all Araki’s films. The boys are weak, indecisive, co –dependent dreamers, the girls are always stunning, powerful and fiercely independent pragmatists. It’s a winning combination and a tried and tested Araki formula. Our heroine in Kaboom is Stella, played by Haley Bennet. While she doesn’t have the comic timing of Anna Faris in Smiley Face or the hypnotic screen presence that Rose McGowan had in The Doom Generation she puts in a great performance and the camera loves her. Our hero, Smith, is played by Thomas Dekker who you might recognise as Zach from Heroes. Araki’s former muse, James Duval, makes a cameo appearance here, and it’s nice to see them working together again. Sadly Duval might be best remembered as Frank from Donnie Darko, but his best work has always been with Araki.
If all of this doesn’t sound appealing enough then maybe you’ll like the soundtrack. Music plays a big part in all of Araki’s films and Kaboom is no exception. From The Cocteau Twins to The XX, the soundtrack incorporates shoe-gaze, nu-gaze and everything in between. Even L.A. based space rock trio Helen Stellar perform in an excellent a cameo appearance. A crucial part of any film, Araki describes the soundtrack as the films ‘soul’, something this film has plenty of.
Kaboom was awarded the Queer Palm at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and as it's the first film to receive the award, it represents a positive contribution to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. Araki explained to me that Kaboom was a bid to recapture the cult following of his early films, like a modern day Doom Generation, but the Queer Palm represents what Araki does best.
You can’t set out to make a cult and I don’t believe Kaboom will surpass anything Araki has already made; but he does deserve this accolade. Above all Kaboom is silly, but it’s good fun, rampantly sexy and bizarrely original. You certainly won’t see anything else quite like it.