By Adam Nayman

A  berserk sugar rush of a movie featuring a cast so uniformly young and supple that Roxanne Mesquida registers as a veteran presence, Kaboom has been heralded as a homecoming of sorts for Gregg Araki. The story goes that John Waters urged Araki to try to recapture the adolescent kick of his early features, and there is a degree to which Kaboom‘s gorgeously bored, sexually voracious characters and criss-crossing conspiracy narratives function as callbacks to the laissez-faire funkiness of his ‘90s output. And yet for all its creeping apocalyptic dread and frantic pansexual hijinks, Kaboom is surprisingly and surpassingly sweet. Now in his early fifties and comfortably ensconced in the contemporary indie pantheon, Araki  is less bratty than benign, more Smiley-Faced than Totally Fucked Up.

“There’s a different point of view than in The Doom Generation (1995) or Nowhere (1997),” says Araki, who was recently in Toronto to present Kaboom as part of a career retrospective at TIFF Bell Lightbox. “I’m ten or fifteen years older, and as you get older you do get more of a balanced outlook. I’m in a completely different headspace and a completely different place in my life. I think when I made those earlier movies, I was a lot more like my characters—I was also unmoored, or confused. Now I’m more centred and have a stronger sense of who I am, and I think that’s reflected in the sensibility of the later movies.”

None of which is to say that Kaboom is innocuous: this is a movie in which frat boys in animal masks stalk co-eds in the middle of the night and one character is surprised in the act of trying to fellate himself. The plot is kick-started by the demented dreams of 19-year-old film student Smith (Thomas Dekker), who struggles to reconcile his freaky visions with the increasingly strange goings-on at his sun-dappled Southern California campus. Those masked lurkers conjure memories of The Wicker Man (1973), but the creepiness is almost completely jokey; Araki has mentioned Twin Peaks as an influence, although a better analogy might be a super-sized episode of Veronica Mars on pot brownies. “I think there’s a level of fun and playfulness in Kaboom,” says Araki.I think it’s very similar in that way to Smiley Face (2008). There’s a lot of celebration. I don’t think it’s angst-ridden or nihilistic at all.”

Or rather, there’s a bit more distance between Araki’s angst and that of his characters, who spend most of the movie fretting, whether it’s over exams or orgasms (or the negative effect that worrying about one is having on the ability to achieve the other). In fact, the whole movie pivots on Smith’s anxiety that the signs he’s receiving and attempting to interpret with the help of two distaff pals—his longtime lesbian best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) and new acquaintance/posh-accented fuck-buddy London (Juno Temple)—hint that the world is about to end; a nice metaphor for the heightened sensations of one’s college years. “When you’re younger, your emotions and hormones are very intense,” says Araki. “You always feel like the world is about to end. You know, you break up with somebody or you fail a test and then boom—that’s it. There’s always this sense of impending catastrophe, when of course in retrospect, these things aren’t that big a deal. They’re just bumps in the road. So it was fun to play with that.”

This is not to say that Kaboom mocks Smith and company for their heightened self-regard, any more than it casts aspersions on their enthusiastic bed-hopping. More than one critic has compared the film to Southland Tales (2006), and while I’m not sure they have all that much in common—where Richard Kelly buys into gonzo-science fiction tropes, Araki deploys them as decoys to his real theme of encroaching maturity—the title of Krysta Now’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) hit single is surely applicable: “teen horniness is not a crime.” Smith’s claim that he’s “sexually undeclared” is the closest anybody in the film comes to classifying or labelling his or her desires, and none of the couplings (straight or same-sex) are frowned upon (although Stella’s tryst with the witchy Mesquida gets pretty Gothic by the end). Then there’s the bit where London advises a bedmate on the particulars of pleasuring a woman with his mouth: “it’s a vagina, not a plate of spaghetti.” Instead of censor-prodding transgression, the scene leaves an impression of tart-tongued tenderness. “There’s a weird, puritanical hypocrisy in American movies about sex and sexuality,” says Araki. “A lot of movies are titillating, but they’re not about sexuality, really. I get very frustrated, and it’s perplexing to me. I don’t know why so few American movies, even indies, ever go there.”

Kaboom shows its creator pushing further in other ways, like its candy-coated cinematography (by Sandra Van Halde), which showcases hard, popping colours. (Dekker’s ice-blue eyes, always dilating with fear or desire, are like a special effect unto themselves.) The shimmering textures of Mysterious Skin (2005) and the slovenly look of Smiley Face were both well-suited to their respective stories, but Kaboom narrows the gap between form and content so that it’s imperceptible: it’s like a fleet, fleshy graphic novel. “As a kid, I was really into comic books,” says Araki, “which was like an entrée into the world of film. I think [Kaboom] exists in a very stylized graphic world: the colours are very exaggerated, it’s a pop-art aesthetic. It’s a film that you can escape into. So I hope people can experience it cinematically, because it functions in that realm: in the dark, on a big screen, with surround sound. That’s very different that looking at in on your laptop, eating a hot dog.”

These medium-specific concerns are actually integrated into the film: Smith is a cinema studies student, and wonders aloud via voice-over if the material nature of film is slipping away. In his voice-over, he likens himself to an anthropologist studying the slow death of an ancient form. “I was an undergraduate film student,” says Araki, “and I think Kaboom is in some way a nostalgic recollection of that time in my life. Smith’s ruminations about cinema and its future are also things I think about.” Kaboom is too exuberant to be reduced to a screed, however, and it even kids the dryness of academia. A scene where Smith’s attention gets caught between his “Intro to Film Studies” textbook and the spectacle of his “excruciatingly hot” roommate Thor (Chris Zykula) walking into their dorm naked sketches a wry dichotomy between tactile and theoretical pleasures.

Kaboom is the first film that Araki has made in the 2:35 aspect ratio, a move that he says was conscious. “I was really interested in making a dark, apocalyptic epic and so shooting in 2:35 just made sense,” he explains. “Kaboom was the first of my movies to screen in the main selection at Cannes, so it was up on the huge screen at the Palais. That was one of the highlights of my whole career. It was poetic in a way, because the movie asks whether cinema is a dying form and there it was up on that big screen. That experience of being in a cinema—there’s nothing that can quite touch it.”