Director: Christopher Louie
Cast: Sarah Hyland, Graham Phillips, Brett DelBuono
Run Time: 1 our 32 minutes
I have no idea why XOXO exists. Combining the central conflict and half the cast of Jem and the Holograms with the EDM subject matter of We Are Your Friends, the Netflix original film is cobbled together from the two biggest flops of 2015. Nevermind that I kinda like both those movies, it just doesn’t seem like a solid investment. And the first-time writer-director, former animator Christopher Louie, is no Duffer Brothers, to say the least. Oh well. Maybe I’m just getting old.
He who is tired of watching other people party is tired of life.
XOXO wants to be the Love, Actually of the rave scene, detailing the myriad adventures of the attendees of the XOXO EDM show and how they cross paths. Our de facto protagonist is Ethan Shaw (Graham Phillips), an aspiring DJ who lands a coveted last-minute slot on the XOXO lineup, but is too shy to play his own demos. He doesn’t seem aware of how raves actually work. Or record deals, as evidenced by his seduction by the skeevy headliner Avilo (Ryan Hansen). Or USB drives. There are literally two separate scenes where the tension hinges on his inability to plug things in. This guy’s our hero.
Anyway, the other characters are Tariq (Brett DelBuono), Ethan’s best friend/manager who attempts to hold a meeting with a record producer and find Ethan among the throng after being accidentally dosed with LSD; Shannie (Hayley Kiyoko) and Ray (Colin Woodell), a couple trying to enjoy their last day together before she moves across the country for a year; Neil (Chris D’Elia), a music shop owner/rave Grinch who used to be a DJ but is bitter about the scene; and Krystal (Sarah Hyland, the film’s biggest “name”), a rave virgin/regular virgin who is there to meet a guy she’s been talking to online for a month. But is she really ready for this?
And, more importantly, are we?
Like any film dedicated to depicting a very now subculture, XOXO is hastily assembled, slapdash, and kind of hilarious. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been to a rave, and I’ll die happy if that never changes. But judging from XOXO’s too-trendy teens and depiction of the show as a drug-soaked erotic bacchanal as envisioned by a suburban soccer mom’s G-rated nightmare journal, Christopher Louie has been to even fewer than I.
I mean, at least I have Instagram friends who go to Electric Daisy Carnival.
When XOXO is an adult’s attempt at translating the world of teens for other teens, it’s a doofy but loveable flop. Then when it really settles down for some deep interpersonal drama, the engine drops out at 40,000 feet. But before it plummets to its saccharine demise, it’s worth at least keeping on in the background while you wash dishes. Let’s focus on that part for the time being.
Full of the hip teenage standbys of giant text bubble chockablock with random emojis, zooms on YouTube pages as the numbers rack up, and ridiculous ABBA reject outfits that adults think people actually wear, the first act of XOXO is a manic slalom through too many characters doing too many things that make too little sense. There’s actually some genuinely good dialogue in this sequence, though the lazy clunkers start here and only pick up momentum as the show goes on. It’s a shoddily tossed-together sugar rush that’s easy to mock but easier to find at least a little endearing.
However as the stories progress, they either settle into an entirely predictable formula, stop making any semblance of sense, or lose steam and evaporate from the film entirely. There are still some pockets of campy B-movie magic, like the reclusive creator of the rave, who’s one part Great Gatsby and one part Willy Wonka, but the film’s attempts at emotional sincerity are stunted by its Dollar-Tree-wrapping-paper-thin characters.
Seriously, that stuff tears if somebody’s using scissors NEXT DOOR.
It’s kind of impossible to care about these people because, other than Ethan, they’re only given one character trait to beat over and over like a bongo drum. And they don’t have “arcs” so much as linear stretches from point A to point B, and point B is dancing. I find watching other people have fun onscreen to be an intolerably boring experience, and if you’re anything like me, XOXO will grate on you like your brain is a block of parmesan.
There are some alright moments. Chris D’Elia is amusingly misanthropic. You get to see Ryan Hansen’s arms, and man is that dude aging like a fine wine. But for the most part, XOXO is a transient burst of energy, like a Pixie Stick. There’s still a little powder left in the tube after the initial rush, but you have to work way too hard to get to it. Stick to Netflix’s original series and don’t bother with this half-baked feature.
TL;DR: XOXO is a slightly bad-good but mostly messy exploration of an exhausting teen subculture.
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