After making forays into serious drama with the outstanding “Mysterious Skin” and borderline-mainstream fare with “Smiley Face,” helmer Gregg Araki returns to his roots with “Kaboom.” A campus comedy romp in which polysexual, zonked-out kids play sexual mix-and-match before discovering a plot to destroy the world, pic revisits the nihilistic hedonism of Araki’s mid-’90s films, but this time around with a welcome dose of stylistic restraint, drier wit and — dare it be said of material featuring auto-fellatio and someone being stabbed in the head — maturity. Still, outre IFC Films pickup won’t ignite far beyond fest and niche circuits.
Per director’s statement, pic was partly inspired by a remark from helmer John Waters, just before the pope of trash himself presented Araki with an award for “Mysterious Skin,” that he’d like to see another “old-school Gregg Araki movie.”
“Kaboom” not only answers that need, but also feels as if it might have been partly ghost-written by Waters, given its abundance of filthy zingers. (“Aside from putting a dick in your mouth while listening to Lady Gaga, that’s about as gay as it gets,” remarks one character of an ostensibly straight guy’s penchant for neatly arranging his shoes.) Araki displayed a knack for bitchy wisecracks before in such ’90s outings as “Totally F***d Up,” “The Doom Generation” and especially “Nowhere,” but the one-liners are consistently funnier and more droll in his script for “Kaboom.”
Plot echoes that of “Nowhere,” but this time with slightly older, college-age characters and a stronger narrative engine. Main protagonist is Smith (Thomas Dekker, best known for his lead role in TV’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”), an 18-year-old film studies major who describes his sexuality as “undecided.” Smith beds both men and women throughout, while his best friend Stella (Haley Bennett, “Marley and Me”) sticks to women.
Just before his 19th birthday, Smith has an enigmatic dream that proves prophetic when hitherto unknown people from the dream start showing up in real life. The first is literally witchy French beauty Lorelei (Catherine Breillat regular Roxane Mesquida), who starts an affair with Stella. The second is a mysterious red-haired girl (Nicole LaLiberte) whom Smith sees getting stabbed by a gang of black-clad men wearing animal masks. Mind you, Smith’s not sure the murder really happened, because he was tripping at the time after eating hallucinogen-laced cookies.
The mystery deepens, and eventually comes to encompass everyone Smith knows, from his new friend with benefits London (Juno Temple, displaying great comic timing), to his hunky doofus of a roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka, whose character is described by Smith as “a surfer, dumb as a box of rocks, aka just my type”) and Smith’s own mother, Nicole (onetime ’80s icon Kelly Lynch, welcome back).
Satisfying though it is that the narrative moves along more smoothly than in Araki’s earlier teensploitation pics, the hoopla about quasi-Scientological cults and psychic powers is just something for the characters to do in between hopping into bed with each other, discussing sex and cracking wise. Despite the apocalyptic ending, the mood here is one of sunny cheerfulness, offering a joyous tribute to the easy sensuality of youth that doesn’t feel at all lascivious coming from a 50-year-old director. Indecently good-looking cast joins in the spirit of the thing with gusto.
Sex scenes are barely R-ratable material, although pic’s generally free-love tone may reap harder certification from the MPAA.
Candy-colored digital lensing by Sandra Valde-Hansen enhances the mood, while Araki, wearing his editor’s hat, has plenty of fun with wipes, irises and other optical gizmos that make pic feel more like a madcap caper. Although allusions to ’80s alternative rock (especially beat combo New Order and Joy Division) play a key role in the dialogue, the soundtrack supervised by Tiffany Anders mostly consists of well-chosen up-and-coming groups of whom hipper members of the age group depicted would approve.