It would be easy to describe Totally F***ed Up (1993), an early film from New Queer Cinema pioneer Gregg Araki, as a “relationship drama”. The film deals mostly with the highs and lows of romance for a group of young gay friends in LA in the early Nineties: Andy (James Duvall); Tommy (Roko Belic); and two couples, Michele (Susan Behshid) and Patricia (Jenee Gill), and Steven (Gilbert Luna) and Deric (Lance May). Over the film’s short 78 minute running time, they each expose their insecurities and celebrations in love and sex. On the other hand, “relationship drama” seems like a rather simple and trite label for what Araki’s film does.
There is no specific narrative arc driving the film. Rather, scenes follow on from each other chronologically but with no particular purpose beyond the interactions of the characters. These scenes are separated and intercut with moments in which the characters discuss their inner thoughts to Steven’s video camera. At times, Araki seems to comment on the dialogue in the form of on-screen text. One especially amusing scene involves the characters naming their celebrity crushes, who are defined in brief sentences in glowing blue text (“Tom Cruise: Rock Hudson for the ’90s” reads one such line).
There is a closeness to these characters born of the candour with which they share their concerns and insecurities with each other and the audience. They’re funny, and they’re sweet, and they’re often also angry. It doesn’t take too long to become attached to them. What begins as a rapid-fire, lo-fi, experimental film fairly quickly coalesces into a surprisingly touching drama.
Araki’s narrative style in Totally F***ed Up is in tune with his contemporary American independent scene beyond his fellow alumni of the New Queer Cinema wave. There’s just as much in common with Richard Linklater as Todd Haynes in the low-key character drama.
Totally F***ed Up doesn’t have the same, strange hybrid feeling of gloom and wonder that permeated his later masterpiece Mysterious Skin (2004). Rather than the deep-rooted disorders brought on by child abuse and explicit sexual violence which were the cornerstone of that film, the earlier work is more interested in the emotions brought on by the immediate past. That’s not to say that Totally F***ed Up is a completely comfortable watch. At one point Araki cuts from dialogue discussing sex to an insert of hardcore pornography. It’s certainly not the best work of his career, but Totally F***ed Up is an interesting and thoroughly engaging piece of cinema; and intriguing milestone from his nascent career at the forefront of New Queer Cinema.