If you found Zac Efron's humble journey into the world of EDM insufferable in We Are Your Friends, it's possible the Netflix original movie XOXO has the RPMs your looking for. While the story of a bedroom DJ with big dreams of mainstream success is still the core track being spun it's just one of a multitude of familiar beats linking colorfully-clad, lambent youngsters searching for meaning in the music. There's nothing new or vaguely original here, but the film does capture the hypnagogic appeal of the rave scene, which is something Hollywood has often struggled with.
Against my better judgment the film managed to grab me, even though its situations are ridiculous and the characters little more than cliches. But then I thought back to one of my favorite spirit-lifting movies, 2000's rave scene drama Groove, and it's telling the exact same story. I may be much older now (uggghhhhh) but the allure of letting the surreal haze of the music and, yes, rampant drug use, transport us away from reality is still the same. It doesn't seem to matter what the movie, there's always a storybook quality to movies set in the rave culture (Nowhere, Go, as further examples, two more personal faves) and XOXO is no different.
First-time director Christopher Louie, who came up with the story himself, doesn't let himself get bogged down by any particular narrative structure or visual/sonic approach. It's a series of moments and experiences, loosely connected by sounds and emotions, which can be exhilarating at times but also frustratingly vague. The first character we meet is the one that binds everyone together: Ethan Shaw (Graham Phillips), an American kid whose first track just scored a million Youtube hits. Apparently that's enough for his best friend and manager Tariq (Brett DelBuono) to book him a spot on the grand stage at XOXO, the country's biggest EDM festival. Modern Family star Sarah Hyland plays the resident newcomer/naive attendee, Krystal, who hopes to meet a guy she believes is her soulmate at the party. How does she know? Because he sent her a copy of Ethan's track and it spoke to her. Awww shucks. Other cliches strewn about include the cynical veteran raver (played by comedian Chris D'Elia) who hates this new crop of DJs; a young couple (Haley Kiyoko and Colin Woodell) sharing one last magical night together before going their separate ways; and a narcissistic star DJ (Ryan Hansen, perfectly cast as a jerk) who sees it all as a business.
Of course, Ethan does it for the love of the music. We don't learn much else about him, and Louie, with a screenplay credit to Dylan Meyer, seems more concerned about where these characters are than where they've been. And where they are is awash in an array of dizzying sights and sounds. The fluorescent spray budget alone must have set this production back a truckload, but it combines with the music, overseen by legendary DJ Pete Tong, to create an electric atmosphere. Perhaps it was Tong's influence but there's a great deal of respect shown to the music and the culture, which doesn't often happen. At the very least you can tell this was made by people who may have actually attended a rave in their lives. Crazy, I know.
Where the movie falters is in some of its lame attempts at trippy humor. A party bus breaks down on the way to the event, causing a near riot. Another brouhaha breaks out when all of the tickets are sold, with neon-lit misfits in weird costumes scrambling like an asteroid is about to hit. One character's drug-fueled spiral into psychedelia feels forced and sorta perfunctory, as if this wouldn't be a rave movie without showing that side of it. But then it's basically ignored so why even have it? A heart-to-heart in the middle of a filthy sewer is quite literally the pits of what XOXO has to offer in terms of laughs. Older people are either jaded curmudgeons or sage-like mentors dispensing advice on their young, drugged-out padewans.
Phillips and Hyland, the latter also credited as a producer, are charming in capturing that moment in life when the possibilities seem endless. XOXO isn't especially deep, but there's always room for another film about marching to the beat of one's own drum machine.
Rating: 3 out of 5