Tracing the progress of innovative filmmakers is a pleasure for movie buffs. Gregg Araki developed a unique voice in film in the early 1990s (this film dates back to 1993), a voice that maintained a sense of immediacy with his actors who he directed with his hand held camera in a manner that gave the illusion that the 'script' was extemporaneous. Careful not to assign controversial roles to inadequate talent, Araki gathered a group of young actors and pulled the very best from them. Many of these early actors still maintain presence in Araki's prolific flow of films.
As is so often the case with Araki's stories, TOTALLY F***ED UP deals with gay sensibilities in a way that displays the entire spectrum of positive and negative response to his characters. He does not preach: he simply voyeuristically reveals lifestyles as though he were a hidden personage who just happened to fall into private moments and turbulent emotions. In this film Araki divides the examination of six teenage gay kids (four boys and two girls) into 15 dialogues, each representing an aspect of what faces his characters and how they cope with being on the fringe. The 15 episodes are related because the characters remain the same and it is this unique manner of making his story that has continued to be a trait of Araki's later, more linear films.
We meet each of the six characters in an interview situation, with only the minimal amount dialogue conveying the maximum amount of information. The primary character is Andy (a superlative James Duval) whose view of life is bleak to say the least: Andy doesn't believe in love, in commitment, believes he is bisexual even though he has never stepped out of his same-sex playing out, grows to depend on his friends, falls in love with a sweet talking fellow Ian (Alan Boyce) only to discover Ian is not at all monogamous, and finally feels the pain of heartbreak and makes a decision about life that ends the film. The other characters include Michele (Susan Behshid) and Patricia (Jenee Gill) who are lesbian lovers and stable figures for the boys, desiring to have children and a wholesome life without the need for male penetration!; Steven (Gilbert Luna) and Deric (Lance May) who are coupled but come apart when Steven has an affair and Deric is gay-bashed; and Tommy (Roko Belic), the one who falls in love too easily with every one night stand he has.
The episodes deal with the characters' sexual attitudes, AIDS, life on the streets, drugs, parental alienation, loneliness, abuse, suicide, and the desperate need for extended family. With Araki's technique we come to care strongly for each of these disparate kids: by the end of the film they feel like close personal friends of ours.
The filming technique is choppy and slips out of focus and seems to idle like a malfunctioning engine at times, but in Araki's sensitive hands these aspects add to the tension of the story. Clearly Gregg Araki is a gifted artist, and his films subsequent to this successful one serve to prove his growth and increased power of heart to heart communication. Highly recommended. Grady Harp, November 05