Two decades after he helped launch what became known as the New Queer Cinema, Gregg Araki both has and hasn't matured as a filmmaker, which turns out to be just about perfect. His early movies — The Living End (1992), Totally F**ked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), Nowhere (1997) — function as hits of concentrated Attitude: Clumsy, strident and aggressive, they're often easier to admire than to enjoy, at least for those not seeking a rally in disguise. Mysterious Skin (2004), adapted from a novel and nearly devoid of irony or camp, signaled for many the welcome arrival of a new Araki, one who'd learned to use the camera expressively and wasn't afraid to tackle his characters' pain head-on.
But Araki minus gleeful vulgarity wouldn't really be Araki. So it's a joy to report that Kaboom, his return to the polyamorous bed-hopping adventures of gorgeous, randy SoCal teens, fuses his newfound formal dexterity and relaxed assurance with his outrageous, gonzo instincts of old — a giddily bracing combination.
Granted, you still need a certain appreciation for the willfully absurd. Like Nowhere, Kaboom takes its cue from prime-time soap operas like Beverly Hills 90210, though there's also a heavy dose of David Lynch-style deadpan weirdness thrown into the mix this time around. The movie's bisexual hero, Smith (Thomas Dekker), spends most of his days at college either trading wisecracks with his best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) or lusting after his muscle-bound lunk of a roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka), who's ostensibly straight but keeps bringing other guys back to the dorm for near-naked wrestling matches.
But Smith is haunted by a recurring nightmare that reeks of impending doom, and he starts to truly freak out when that nightmare intrudes into his waking life, in the form of shadowy figures wearing animal masks. Nor is it entirely clear why the libidinous London (Juno Temple), after running into Smith at a party, has attached herself to him at the hips. More and more, his sex life seems to be intimately connected somehow to the end of human civilization. And who hasn't felt that?
What makes Kaboom such a (forgive me) blast is the hilarious tension Araki's managed to achieve between his over-the-top subject matter and his offhand approach. Poison-tipped gags that he would have beaten into the dirt in the '90s now get blithely thrown away; the salaciousness skips so lightly across the screen that you could almost swear you were watching Frankie and Annette, if not for the fact that everybody's constantly naked. Also, after working with the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in Mysterious Skin) and Anna Faris (in Smiley Face), Araki has clearly learned the importance of casting gorgeous kids who can actually act. (Ms. Temple in particular knows exactly how to speak ridiculous lines with delectable insouciance.)
Toward the end, it starts to seem as if the movie might be getting bogged down in its clearly meaningless plot, to the detriment of its free-floating exploration of hormone-addled anxiety, but even this apparent hiccup proves to be a deft, deliberate ploy. Immaturity has rarely felt so sophisticated.