There’s something regressive and at the same time progressive about Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, and perhaps something a little bit transgressive also. Sometimes however, you need to take a step back before you can go forward, and for the Californian film maker Araki, Kaboom marks a return to the underground roots after his rather more arthouse-friendly (though still certainly not mainstream-friendly) critically acclaimed work on Mysterious Skin (2005) and Smiley Face (2007), where he worked on material that was not of his own invention. Personally, I’m not familiar with the three films that make up Araki’s “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” (Totally F***ed Up, Doom Generation and Nowhere), but the term “teen apocalypse” could certainly also be applied to the subject matter, themes and the overall attitude of Kaboom.
Teen behaviour and a complete willingness to give oneself up to the unlimited potential life offers young, beautiful, sexually uninhibited and open-minded college students keen to experiment lies at the heart of the film – and Araki is certainly willing to indulge his wildest fantasies in the filmmaking department also with Kaboom. College student, Smith (Thomas Dekker) is happy to swing both ways as the occasion demands, lusting after his muscular, blonde, dim surfer roommate Thor (Chris Zylka) – who has an unsettling habit of walking around their dorm-room completely naked – while also casually sleeping with London (Juno Temple), a free-spirited girl he has met at a party.
Smith confides abut these and his other random encounters with his dryly witty and sarcastic best friend Stella (Haley Bennett), who has just embarked on an affair of her own with a rather strange, obsessive and sexually demanding girl, Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), who has strange powers that take Stella to incredible heights of ecstasy, seemly without even touching her. Approaching his 19th birthday, Smith however is having strange dreams that feature a red-headed girl, who he later meets while tripping and hallucinating after a party, finding her pursued by men in animal masks. When her decapitated body turns up in a dumper in the area, Smith finds himself caught up in the activities of a strange cult, as events take on an increasingly bizarre and dangerous edge.
Going back to his filmmaking roots in this way, there’s always the danger of Araki being a little too old now to do teen material, and by revisiting his indie roots moreover there’s an even greater likelihood of the film descending into parody. Well, there’s no danger of that in Kaboom, which clearly operates from a complete sense of awareness of those potential pitfalls and instead plays intentionally right into them. It would be a different matter if Kaboom was supposed to be a serious film, but it clearly has a sense of self-awareness and a willingness to flirt with parody, and the intelligence of its approach – the script is indeed very smart and witty – does succeed in capturing that sense of teenage freedom of expression, of unlimited potential, of the world being yours for the taking, where everything is possible and life can be full of surprises.
That same carefree sense of playing by your own rules is evident throughout Kaboom, and it’s simply delightful to see the director free himself from the constraints that conventional filmmaking, scripting and acting normally forces successful filmmakers into – mainstream, studio and indie alike. Gregg Araki recognises no such boundaries, and if it’s a little too self-consciously reliant on Twin Peaks for its style and attitude and wacky, cult bizarreness without tapping into the subconscious in the personal, unsettling and genuinely transgressive way that David Lynch was able to achieve, Kaboom is able to enjoy greater freedom in the script, the language and the on-screen nudity and sexual situations that Twin Peaks did indeed contribute to bring about. Araki makes full use of that freedom, bringing in his own style and aesthetic, drawing from other influences (notably the Andy Warhol school of filmmaking), picking and choosing, but bringing his own sensibility out through it all most marvellously.
You will no doubt hear Kaboom described as a very bad film indeed, but there’s a difference between a bad film and a film that just isn’t to your taste, a film which offends your sensibilities, or indeed a film that you just don’t get. (‘Is this for real?’ is likely to be a common reaction). While it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, Kaboom is actually an extremely well made film – pacy, well-edited (allowing even for the rather cheesy effects and transition wipes), superbly scripted with genuine wit and invention, and very well directed to achieve the maximum impact. Most of all – and this isn’t emphasised often enough – it’s got a superb sense of fun and ends up being highly entertaining. If I have any single complaint about the film, it’s not so much that it looks and feels more like a pilot episode of a cult TV series than a film made for theatrical release, as much as the sense of disappointment that it isn’t actually going to be a long-running TV series, since one feels that Kaboom could in the end be just as wayward, unpredictable, inventive and, yes, as transgressive as Twin Peaks was all those years ago.