At the time of its 1997 release, "Nowhere" represented the culmination of writer/director Gregg Araki's considerable talents. He'd honed the teenage confessional aspect with "Totally Fucked Up" in 1994, which almost seemed like a precursor/test-run for MTV's "Real World," and injected a healthy dose of chaos and Expressionism to the formula with "The Doom Generation" (1995).
While "Doom Generation" was a visually intense and fun film to watch, it lacked any emotional pull. "Nowhere" works because it fuses the anarchy and sexuality of that film with a genuine, beating human heart.
"Love is stronger than death."-The The
It's fair to say that "Nowhere" is Araki's most "mainstream" film: it stars a literal gallery of young stars who were either mega-famous at that point (Shannon Doherty, Christina Applegate) or who would go on to become mega-famous (Ryan Phillipe, Heather Graham, Mena Suvari, Denise Richards, Scott Caan, and more).
Araki uses the star-studded cast to ease an audience who may not be familiar with his past work into his world of devil-may-care sexuality, angst, and sudden bursts of ultra-violence.
Rose McGowan, Traci Lords, and Shannon Doherty show up in a cameo
that pays homage to the works of Bret Easton Ellis ("Less than Zero," "Rules of Attraction")
Wait, what am I saying? Araki doesn't bother to ease the viewer at all; we're thrown headfirst down the rabbit hole from the opening zoom in on a misty shower stall set to the music of Slowdive, our protagonist Dark Smith in the midst of an intense masturbation session as his vivid fantasy life - involving hetero sex, S&M, and homoerotic longing - is intercut with close-ups of his soapy body. Yeah, this is a Gregg Araki film, no doubt about it.
What Dark's forbidden object of desire, Montgomery, says about Dark holds just as true for "Nowhere" itself: "You've got the deepest, darkest eyes. It's like I could just tumble right into them and fall forever."
Welcome to nowhere
The plot, so much as there is one, follows the life of several L.A. college students (with names like Dingbat, Handjob, Zero, and Lucifer) during a span of less than 24 hours as they skip class, do drugs, and head to an almost fabled party by the end of the night. The film is a kaleidoscope of colors - lighting is always to the extreme, with vibrant red and blues hues - and expressionistic sets, like Dark's bedroom walls featuring a mural of a guy about ready to blow his brains out.
When "Nowhere" came out, the tagline used to market it was "It's 90210 on acid!" which is mostly just a cutesy selling point but the film does have the same snarky bite ("Don't be a seizure queen!") and varied cast of many 90's teen ensembles - except this is one for the rest of us; that is, anyone who's ever felt alone, awkward, insecure, suicidal, lost, or that society is driving them insane. Imagine a more hetereo-leaning live-action adaptation of a Dennis Cooper novel (but with at least a glimmer of hope instead of complete and utter nihilism) - and you're halfway to capturing what "Nowhere" is like.
Anyone who knows me knows I automatically have to love a movie that contains an exchange like this:
ALYSSA: Look, have you ever heard of the Rapture?
MONTGOMERY: The Siouxsie and the Banshees album?
It's not a party without...
"Nowhere" is wall-to-wall kinky sex (you'll never look at chocolate candy the same way again) and drug abuse, from recreational use of ecstasy to full-on heroin addiction. Once the shock wears off, you realize that Gregg Araki is creating a hyper-stylized reflection of our reality onscreen…one in which the free-wheeling debauchery and rampant jadedness of our culture makes it so that meaningful human connections can be almost impossible to make.
Couldn't have said it better myself
The film is also wall-to-wall music, with Gregg Araki forgoing a traditional score in favor of using his favorite artists on the soundtrack. There is rarely a moment of this film that doesn't have music, even if it's playing faintly in the background. Araki's tastes lean towards shoegaze, dream pop, and classic alternative music - so if you love artists like the Cocteau Twins, Catherine Wheel, Sonic Youth, Suede, and Massive Attack, you're going to be overjoyed here.
The soundtrack is truly one of the best parts of an already amazing movie. The title of the film could easily be derived from the album "Nowhere" by Ride or the song by Curve (Araki's first movie was named after a Jesus & Mary Chain song).
Violence tends to erupt suddenly and without warning in Gregg Araki movies
Granted, it's worth noting that the music is not as selectively employed as in Araki's later works - never has Sigur Ros' music seem so transcendent as in the closing moments of "Mysterious Skin" (2005) - and the constant background noise can be a bit distracting at times, especially if you're familiar with the music and are playing a continual game of "Hey, I know that song! Who sang it again?" But considering that "Mysterious Skin" is the film that got me into shoegaze and dream pop music, I'm not about to complain about "Nowhere"'s blissful tunes.
"Nowhere" is visually stunning from beginning to end
The cast is uniformly excellent. It's easy to overlook James Duvall's Keanu-like non-acting but he's really the glue that holds the entire film together. If we didn't believe in him as a dumb but innocent, horny but good-hearted kid who just wants to meet his soulmate, then the whole movie would fall apart. But he's great, even if he doesn't get to show the range he did in "Totally Fucked Up."
Some comedians do a great Keanu Reeves impression, but
James Duvall does one for the entire movie. You can't top that!
Rachel True ("The Craft") delivers a believable turn as Duvall's kinda-sorta-girlfriend. Ryan Phillipe gives probably the best performance of his career, even he spends most of the film having sex, talking about death, or delivering lines like "Your tongue is cool."
"I...wanna...die. LET'S ALL DIE!"-Ryan Phillipe in "Nowhere"
Christina Applegate is similarly great as the gawky, adoring type (I'm sure the braces helped her get into character); same goes for Jordan Ladd ("Cabin Fever") as a perky, sex-crazed teen who, for whatever reason, spends a lot of her time dwelling on the end of the word. Then again, nearly every character in the film seems to have armageddon or their own personal demise at the front of their minds.
Parental units, in what limited role they play in the film, are completely ineffectual and portrayed by former sitcom stars like Christopher Knight ("Brady Bunch") and David Leisure ("Emtpy Nest").
I had to make a screen grab of Chrstina Applegate's shirt, one of my
favorite fashion crimes ever committed to celluloid
Special mention must be made of Nathan Bexton ("Go," "The In Crowd"), an actor who never really took off during the late 90's for whatever reason, but who completely steals the film for me. He plays the shy, slightly-stuttering dreamboat with mesmerizing, mis-matched eyes who everybody refers to as "weird."
His unlikely bond with Dark is kept in the background of the movie but is really the heart of the entire story. Bexton brings Montgomery to life with an almost asexual innocence that is intentionally missing from the rest of the cast.
Nathan Bexton: forgotten teen idol
With this film, Gregg Araki holds up a funhouse mirror to the 90's, distorting its "no fear"/"whateverrr" attitude into a surreal and multi-colored tour through…nowhere. Every character is lost, alone, and yearning for genuine love in some way; even if they've become seduced by the lure of potent drugs or casual sex. It's the kind of movie that could have easily devolve into trash cinema or painful parody if it wasn't for the fact that Araki knows when to keep his tongue planted firmly in cheek and when to go for those tender, real moments between actors.
For all of its chaos and in-your-face attitude, the moments of intimacy in this movie are almost uncomfortable intimate; the characters kiss and talk the way young people really do kiss and talk when no one else is around. Even when space aliens show up, it simply fits in with Araki's madcap design, with the extraterrestrials serving as a potent metaphor for…well, whatever you want them to, really.
Never underestimate this film's ability to surprise you
Considering that most of the characters in "Nowhere" are in the 18-20 range, I'm not sure what it says about me that I feel like I can relate to this movie more and more each time I watch it. I'd like to think it means that the issues "Nowhere" tackles are universal for anyone at any time who feels lost in the cultural storm and is hoping for someone else else to break through the noise.
This is a fantastic film from a master stylist who never lets his style get in the way of what's really important - but actually uses that style to emphasize, underscore, and even exaggerate what's important. For a certain kind of filmgoer, "Nowhere" might just be a lifesaver.
"Your shit means nothing to me"