If you aren’t gay, a film buff or really into tracking the career of Rose McGowan, chances are you’ve never heard of film director Gregg Araki. In certain circles though, he’s like a God. He’s the man responsible for the 90s cult classics The Doom Generation, Nowhere, and Totally Fucked Up, which together created the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy—a trifecta of teen alienation, hazy sexuality and aggression. Araki portrayed youth in a bleak, but often comical way. In his world, hallucinations were normal, boys kissing boys was no big deal and parents were busy not being parents. To the casual reader, it might seem like I’m describing some lame Less Than Zero rip-off, but Araki’s films couldn’t have been further from than that. Unlike Ellis, Araki was in on his own joke. His work always blurs reality and fantasy with a knowing wink. Check out this hilarious clip from Nowhere for reference.
As he was coming out of the 90s, Araki started to shy away from the avant-garde and began to make features that reflected a growing maturity and focus. His next films, Splendor and Mysterious Skin, may’ve been different in tone, but they both contained a sense of realism that had yet to be seen from the director. Splendor was like a screwball comedy with an Araki twist and Mysterious Skin is perhaps his most well-known and richly complex film to date. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a molestation survivor/ gay teen hustler who comes to grips with his traumatic past with the help from another molestation victim. Mysterious Skin served as a major turning point because not only did it give Gordon-Levitt major credibility as an actor, but it also put Araki on the edges of the mainstream map. And even though it revisited some typical Araki topics—homosexuality, youth, meaningless sex—it did so with a newfound sense of subtlety. He even replaced his typical punk soundtrack with a dreamy shoegaze score to complement the quiet melancholy tone. In the end, it showed us what a bizarro quirky director could make while exercising a little restraint.
Kaboom—his latest film, which opened this past Friday—heralds a return to his theme of teen apocalyptic nightmares. It’s about an 18-year old bisexual college freshman named Smith (Thomas Dekker) who starts experiencing end of the world hallucinations while nursing a crush on his hot surfer roommate and sleeping with a British girl named London (Juno Temple). There’s plenty of gratuitous male nudity, drug use and forays into fantasy to satisfy any old school Araki fan, but it is also perhaps the most modern and funniest movie he’s ever made. The grungey 90s that hung over his films like a dark cloud is replaced by Lady Gaga gay jokes, texting and computers. With Kaboom, Araki has taken his “then” into the “now” seamlessly.
It’s unclear whether or not Gregg Araki will ever become a household name, but as long as he continues to make subversive films about uncomfortable topics, I’m sure his status as a cult director won’t ever be challenged. And thank God for that because the last thing we need is another director who makes films featuring dogs, misogyny masquerading as humor, or vampires.