Strange is the new normal in Gregg Araki’s splashy and squishy Kaboom, a screwball clusterfuck that finds the writer-director returning to portraits of youthful, orgasmocentric ensembles while seeking a balance between the gleefully anarchic impulses of his early New Queer Cinema efforts and the newfound technical control of Mysterious Skin. The gumdrop-colored dorms and surrounding party-hardy dives and nude beaches of its campus setting (which, identified simply and amusingly as “College of Creative Arts,” plays much like a lampoon of conservative fears about Southern California universities) make for arguably the most visually vibrant of the filmmaker’s teenage wastelands, a polysexual hothouse that, as dazed freshman Smith (Thomas Dekker) promptly discovers, is not without its intimations of dread.
A film-school cutie who describes himself as sexually “undeclared,” Smith kills time before his 19th birthday by soaking up sarcasm from baby-dyke gal pal Stella (Hayley Bennett) and shyly negotiating his lust for hunky, straight, numbskull roommate Thor (Chris Zylka). Already inundated with humid fantasies and bizarre recurring dreams, his grasp of reality takes a further hit one fateful night after he munches on hallucinogenic sweets. Suddenly, coeds turn up headless, witches and messiahs mingle with students, and hordes of masked cultists skulk in the shadows. Mysteries proliferate: Is the shagtastic British blonde (a fabulous Juno Temple) who can convince pretty boys to experiment with their Kinsey scales somehow related to the toga-clad patriarch who keeps materializing in the protagonist’s reveries? Does Stella’s new squeeze (Roxane Mesquida) really have supernatural powers? And why is the resident pothead (longtime Araki axiom James Duval) trading his Rastafarian tam for a crown of thorns?
Florid, feral, and crammed with brazen zingers (“Dude, that’s a vagina, not a bowl of spaghetti!”), Kaboom’s inclusive bacchanal feels particularly refreshing next to the hollow decadence of Bret Easton Ellis’s upper-crust beer kegs. To Araki, youth brims with the positive possibilities of sexual openness even as it continues to feast and choke on the junkiest aspects of pop culture. Despite the title and a hilariously abrupt punchline, however, his vision of the apocalypse is here more benign than explosive: The radicalized anger of The Living End and The Doom Generation has given way to a knowing fondness for characters and situations that seldom unsettles, even as the film takes increasingly absurd conspiracy-theory detours that read like crumpled notes from Richard Kelly’s bottom drawer. Still, Araki’s mellow maturity scarcely blunts his sense of playful, erotic daring, and here he fuses the fleshy with the anxious to fashion something like the new decade’s own queer-eyed Repo Man.