Dir. Gregg Araki
(2011, Not Rated, 86 min)

It’s right about now that I’m glad I’ve stopped giving star ratings, because I don’t know how I’d quantify this one. Kaboom is almost certainly a bad film, but if a film can’t be good it should at least be interesting, and this is a very, very interesting film.

How to describe it? It’s part sex romp and part sci-fi conspiracy thriller, like Donnie Darko by way of one of those awful gay sex comedies like Eating Out, with additional dialogue by Diablo Cody and then crossbred with Southland Tales. Southland Tales is a film so horrendous it almost demands to be seen just to appreciate the spectacular grandeur of its horrendousness. Is that a word? Never mind. Kaboom doesn’t make any more sense than Southland Tales did, but I like it a lot better, and that’s probably because it’s a full hour shorter. Another sixty minutes of this and I might have bled from the ears.

It’s from Gregg Araki, the director of the terrific film Mysterious Skin, though this film suggests a person who has never directed a film before, or maybe even seen a film before – a visitor from another planet who was told vaguely what a film was and then handed a camera and told to go nuts.

Thomas Dekker stars as Smith, a college student on the verge of his nineteenth birthday. He doesn’t like labels, but his sexuality can be described as homoflexible, in that he seems to pine exclusively for men but will occasionally sleep with women and enjoy it. His roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka), is a dim-bulb surfer dude whom Smith fantasizes about. And Smith has an obligatory sassy best friend, Stella (Haley Bennett), a lesbian whose new girlfriend (Roxane Mesquida) is a witch with supernatural powers. This fact is accepted by the characters with little surprise. That’s the kind of film you’re in.

Fezzes are cool

Oh, and Smith is plagued by what may be prophetic dreams.

But forget about the dreams for a moment. Smith meets London (Juno Temple) at a party. He’s wearing a beret, and she’s wearing a fez. They have sex. And there’s an older man named Hunter (Jason Olive) at a nude beach who picks him up for more sex. And Thor’s roommate, Rex (Andy Fischer-Price), whose sexuality is, shall we say, unclear. This seems to be a coming-of-age film about, as Stella describes it, the “intermission between high school and the rest of your life,” the apex of youthful freedom and indiscretion. Except with witches and prophetic dreams.

Highly stylized and broadly acted, the film, even in the early going, is a manic jumble, because immediately into this pan-sexual extravaganza stumbles a plot about a murder, a coverup, and a sinister group of men wearing animal masks. Are they real or a hallucination? And what is the meaning of the strange messages Smith periodically receives, both through the mail and by instant message?

There is not a single frame of this film that indicates what Araki intended or why. It plays like it was written and shot on the fly and by the time the story began to go off the rails it was too late to turn back so he kept doubling down on a bad bet. Consider the lapses of logic. For instance, why is one character kidnapped, transported miles away, and placed in another character’s closet just for both of them to be thrown into a van together? And why does a hospital give a girl the toxicology report for a patient she barely knows?

But why quibble over the small stuff when we can gape at all the big stuff, most of it presented in long, dumbfounding exposition passages during the last twenty minutes. I convulsed with laughter at dialogue of unceasing preposterousness, recited with stone-faced seriousness by wooden actors. Is this meant to be a comedy? Araki gives no clear indication of irony, though frankly irony would spoil the fun, turning this floofy but fascinating mess into just a tiresome exercise in hipster detachment.

It’s a paradox: Kaboom is markedly worse if it’s sincere, but it would be far more entertaining that way. In J.J. Abrams’s Super 8 we got glimpses of a zombie flick directed by the film’s teenage heroes. It’s schlock with grade-Z production values and amateurish acting, but that’s its charm, and I found myself wishing I were watching that movie instead of Super 8. Here, too, we get a film that looks like it was put together by children (admittedly children with a talent for bold visuals), and yet it was made by Araki, who clearly knows how to make a better film than this, but didn’t.

Throughout their audio commentary Araki and Dekker laugh off the story, yet Araki also expresses distaste for directors who wink at the camera, so what do we make of this film? It’s not to be taken seriously but apparently not winking, and it’s invested heavily in its plot, so does that mean it’s intentionally incoherent? It’s at once an outlandish thriller and a put-on, everything and nothing at all. It feels like the joke is on someone here – is it on Araki, on us, or are we all in on it together?