I remember watching Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face (2007) a few summers ago on a whim. I heard it was a stoner comedy classic, and at the time I was in the mood for that type of movie. I immediately fell in love with it and decided I was going to check out some of the director’s other films since I had heard only good things about them.
Smiley Face (2007)
However, Smiley Face, as brilliant as the film is, was not able to prepare me for Araki’s more adventurous, earlier works. Films like The Living End and Totally Fucked Up, two key contributions to the New Queer Cinema movement of the ‘90s, gave me an instant understanding of why Gregg Araki was regarded as such an important filmmaker.
The Living End tells the story of two HIV-positive men amidst the AIDS epidemic as they decide to go on a journey across the country, and I found the movie to be undeniably rebellious, if not a bit rough around the edges. Totally Fucked Up tells the story of a group of queer teenagers and the struggles they face on a daily basis. There really isn’t a lot of plot to the latter, but the film is just as powerful and boundary-pushing as The Living End, and one of Gregg Araki’s many masterpieces. The Living End and Totally Fucked Up opened my eyes to a whole different style of filmmaking, but it wasn’t until I watched Nowhere that I realized what Gregg Araki was truly capable of.
Nowhere, released in the late '90s, takes place over the course of one day and revolves around a large ensemble of characters. At the forefront of the main group of friends is Dark (James Duval), an aspiring young filmmaker who yearns for just one person in his life that can truly love him for who he is. He has a girlfriend named Mel (Rachel True) who he loves very much, but she is too preoccupied with dishing out her love to other people, including a vulgar, blue-haired lady named Lucifer (Kathleen Robertson), for their relationship to ever work.
All the while, Dark has fantasies of getting with the mysterious, green and blue-eyed guy in his class named Montgomery (Nathan Bexton). We also have Cowboy (Guillermo Diaz), a man in a band with his heroin-addicted boyfriend Bart (Jeremy Jordan), Egg (Sarah Lassez), a very sweet and innocent young lady, Alyssa (Jordan Ladd), who keeps talking about “The Rapture," and Dingbat (Christina Applegate), the nerd of the friend group. In addition to the main friend group, there is a nihilistic couple who can’t stop having sex, a naive younger couple, as well as a lizard-looking alien who keeps following these people around.
At the end of the film, the majority of the characters converge at Jujifruit’s party and have… an interesting time there, to say the least. I will refrain from saying any more about the way this film concludes, but what I will say is that the final 20 minutes are absolute insanity and the ending is pitch-perfect.
Nowhere might be a hard sell for people unfamiliar with the director’s work and style. There are a few reasons for this. First, Araki has a very specific way of writing his characters, especially his teenage characters. In Nowhere, each character talks in an overly expressive, often flamboyant manner, the way only Gregg Araki characters do. People say things like “I’d rather have my ball hairs burned off with an acetylene torch,” and “my mom is going to wire a car battery to my testicles.” Nowhere is also one of the most ’90s-looking and sounding movies ever made. Soaked in Shoegaze and other iconic bands from the ‘90s, the film is very much a relic of its time, which for some could make the film feel dated.
However, anything in Nowhere that could be perceived as a flaw only enhances the film’s charm. Yes, some of the dialogue and line delivery are what some might call “questionable,” but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a kick out of the cheesiness. For example, during the “Jujyfruit’s Party” section of the film, there is a scene in a bathroom in which Dark confronts Mel about the fact that she is an unfaithful partner, and he utters the line “Mel, are we still together or what?” The line itself isn’t an inherently bad line, but the way actor James Duval delivers it is both very silly and oddly sincere. Moments like this never cease to put a smile on my face, and they are sprinkled throughout the entirety of Nowhere. And as far as the film’s ‘90s aesthetic goes, I find it endlessly charming, and the Shoegaze-inspired soundtrack makes the film feel even more surreal and dreamlike. Although the film definitely feels like a time capsule of the ‘90s in terms of its look, it’s undeniable just how beautiful every shot is.
This also wouldn’t be a proper review of this film if I didn’t mention the sheer horniness on display. At a certain point, you just have to respect how horny of a director Gregg Araki is. Nowhere has been described by some as hot people fucking for 80 minutes straight, and honestly, that description isn’t too far off.
The success of Nowhere goes far beyond the trashy, cheesy, ‘90s charm the film has to offer. It captures the very specific feeling of doom that every young generation is consumed by, and does so with such high energy. With this movie, Araki created a world that is apocalyptic and depraved. Sex is an act of rebellion toward the rest of society, Jujifruit’s party goes about as poorly as any party can go, romantic relationships implode upon the characters in the most violent ways, and, to make matters even worse, aliens are invading the planet and doing experiments on people.
In Dark’s monologue near the end of the film, he says:
“I feel like I’m sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand watching everyone around me die a slow, agonizing death. It’s like we all know, way down in our souls, that our generation is going to witness the end of everything. You can see it in our eyes. You can see it in mine. Look. I’m doomed. I’m only 18 years old and I’m totally doomed.”
What’s so remarkable and important about this monologue is how it rings true just as much today as it did 25 years ago. All teenagers feel like they’re experiencing the end of the world in one way or another, even if Nowhere takes these feelings to some high extremes that you could only reach in a science-fiction film. Just look at what kids have to grow up with today between COVID and climate change. In a way, aliens invading the earth and doing experiments on us doesn’t seem much worse than the reality we face on a daily basis.
This isn’t to say that Nowhere is at all doom and gloom. In fact, this movie is incredibly colorful and fun, playing out in many ways as a teenage fantasy. A lot of the film’s vibrancy can be attributed to the amazing production design. Each bedroom in the film is just about the coolest thing ever, and each one expresses the personalities of the characters who live in them. Egg’s bedroom is filled with flowers, representing the character’s innocence. Elvis (Thyme Lewis), Alyssa’s boyfriend, has a bedroom that is constructed from mainly concrete to represent his cold, loveless view of the world. Dark’s bedroom is filled with vinyls and videotapes as he is an inspiring filmmaker and artist. Shocker: I would love to live in it.
The film also establishes a world without boundaries, in which anything goes. If you watch the film's original trailer, it explicitly describes its world as having no parental supervision, no gender discrimination, and no limits, using such liberation as a selling point for the film. Nowhere is just as much a dream as it is a nightmare.
In many ways, the colorful world Nowhere presents is also a facade to cover up the nothingness that is under the surface, which is an aspect of the movie that people don’t seem to talk about. That gilded void feeds into the film’s heavy commentary on LA and America in general. America is a country that favors the way things look over the way things are, which can be observed through the culture of the film. Beauty, specifically for females, is achieved by doing terrible things to your body, like drugs and fasting.
In America, we often idolize the people we see on TV, even though the people we see on TV are infamously awful human beings. That idolization of famous people is further explored through Egg and her disastrous relationship with the former Baywatch actor, played by the real-life former Baywatch actor Jaason Simmons. He spends the whole movie complaining about how hard it is to be an actor in order to come across as the vulnerable artist, only to do the most heinous thing imaginable to Egg (again, if you’ve seen the film you know exactly what I’m talking about). America can be a shallow, soul-crushing place.
I think Nowhere is perfect. It is Araki’s most apocalyptic and bizarre film to date. It takes everything I love about his style and amplifies it to the max. It’s a film I have not been able to stop thinking about since watching it for the first time, and it has deeply impacted the way I view cinema. If Gregg Araki is a name you are unfamiliar with, I would start with either The Living End or Totally Fucked Up, and then check out Nowhere after that. Or, if you want to dive head first into Nowhere, go right ahead! I’m sure you’ll still have one hell of a time watching it.
Nowhere can be watched using this link below: