by Jon Bastian
In which our numbed-out Everyteen deadpans his way through a strange, dark place that’s just like real life, only more so..
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Gregg Araki is either an absolute genius or completely clueless; I still can’t tell which. Granted, Nowhere is the first of his films I’ve seen, but I understand they’re all similar. And… (momentary blank stare, then:) um… okay. Somehow, Nowhere manages to be simultaneously compelling and revolting, highly entertaining and apparently pointless, erotic and anti-sexual. The film seems to be all over the map, and yet the proceedings have their own hermetic logic.
Araki has said in interviews that Nowhere is the third part of his “teen apocalypse” trilogy.The first two films were Totally Fucked Up, a paean to gay teen angst, and The Doom Generation, a polysexual adolescent crime spree road movie — Natural Born Killers on Clearasil. Nowhere’s own video box copy describes it as “Beverly Hills 90210 on acid,” but that’s inaccurate. I’d call it 90210 on crack and too much E.
The story, loosely, covers a day in the life of Dark Smith (James Duval) and his various friends as they stumble around the soft, white underbelly of Los Angeles toward the big party up in the hills at the end. Dark sort of has a relationship with Mel (Rachel True) — who’s also frequently face down in nasty-dyke Lucifer (Kathleen Robertson). Meanwhile, Dark kind of has a thing for the young, pretty and sexually ambiguous Montgomery (Nathan Bexton); Mel’s little brother Zero (Joshua Gibran Mayweather) is out to get him some from Zoe (Mena Suvari); Dark’s friend Cowboy (Guillermo Díaz) is frantically trying to find his boyfriend, Bart (Jeremy Jordan), to save him from the heroin that dealer Handjob (Alan Boyce) has hooked him on; death-obsessed Shad (Ryan Phillippe) and Lilith (Heather Graham) fuck like bunnies everywhere and every way; Bart’s parents watch TV and speak some Scandinavian tongue — oh, and there’s that heavily armed Space Alien (Roscoe) on the prowl.
Everything (and several people) comes to a climax at Jujyfruit’s (Gibby Haynes) big party. In a well-choreographed but grim montage, we get two successful suicides, one failed suicide, one homicide, and one… well, you’ll just have to see it. Dark wanders through this day wide-eyed and numb, an Everyteen with all of Keanu Reeves’ looks and about one tenth of his energy, although I think that was the point here.
If Nowhere is about anything, it has to be the crushing numbness today’s teens suffer because the world around them is (or seems to be) so damn bizarre. Mayhem, death and disaster stalk them constantly and even the places that seem to be safe are not. Quite a lot of the nasty bits happen in suburban kitchens and bedrooms, and a sudden triple-disappearance takes place right out on a sunny street. All of these surprises come whizzing out of left field without warning, which is part of what makes the film so disturbing. There is no foreshadowing here. Frequently, characters that movie convention would normally dub survivors are not, and even when Araki seems to be careening toward a happy ending, he delights in yanking the rug out from under us. The last image of our protagonist is a very apt visual summing up of the state of teenhood as it was in the very late 1990’s — or at any other time in history.
And that’s what sets this film apart from any of a thousand other teen flicks. Most other such films, even the good ones, show us the grown-up version of some fantasy high school years that may skim toward verisimilitude but never gets anywhere near the real feelings. Araki just goes for it and, for all its disjointed unpredictability, Nowhere, more than anything else, comes across as the most successful depiction of what it’s really like to be living inside the average teenager’s head. Yes, it’s a dark, twisted, insecure place, but what eighteen-year-old’s secret inner life isn’t? If you’ve ever been a teenager (or, so I’ve been told, parented one) you know that everything at that age is an extreme, from the rarefied heights of hope to the Stygian stench of deepest despair. There is no middle ground.
Nowhere takes big risks, not only in its story, but also in its design. Araki jumps back and forth between locations in the “real” world and studio sets that are both stylized and stagy, and he doesn’t bother to even try to hide the artifice. “Fake” is the point here, whether we’re watching Bart trip out in a bedroom with walls and floor turned into giant pages of text, or Dark is helping a scared and naked Montgomery climb in through a window with stage supports and projected background blatantly obvious. Even the “real world” scenes are drenched in bright, saturated colors that give the proceedings an old skool comic book gloss. Color is thematic here, and it’s worth your while to keep track of where those all-important primary hues pop up.
Speaking of popping up, Araki’s casting provides its own fun little game of spot the face. The bit players and extras are a diverse group of cultural icons, including Debi Mazar, Christina Applegate, Beverly D’Angelo, Charlotte Rae, Denise Richards, Shannen Doherty, Traci Lords, John Ritter and David Leisure. Keep your eyes peeled for Bart’s parents — none other than the former Jan and Peter Brady (Eve Plumb and Christopher Knight) in the film’s most ironic casting touch. Araki even brings us the Brewer Twins, Keith and Derek, in a joined-at-the-hip, stereo-dialogue performance that prefigures their commercial work for Old Navy, albeit with much more interesting (i.e., revealing) clothing here.
It adds up to a dark and twisted ride through a day in the life of a rebel with less than no cause, and Nowhere is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not the kind of thing you should watch with your grandmother in the room. On the other hand, in a very perverse way, this film is actually one of the strongest bits of unintentional anti-drug propaganda I’ve ever seen. If you want your kids to quit everything cold turkey, just pop this in their VCR, hit play and leave the room. The rest will take care of itself, just as Nowhere’s Dark will probably take care of himself and turn out fine in the end. Yes, Araki’s vision is unrelentingly dark and nihilistic and ends on a gut-wrenchingly downbeat note.
But, as one of his characters discovers late in the film, even at the darkest moments, there’s a little bit of hope hiding somewhere. It may turn out to be useless right now, but at least it’s something to hang onto for later — not unlike the way Nowhere hangs onto your brain long after it’s over.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles, and a playwright and screenwriter working in the TV trade.
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