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We watched Netflix’s EDM film XOXO so you didn’t have to

Despite a great soundtrack featuring Flume and others, Netflix’s take on EDM is colourful but riddled with clichés, writes Jim Poe.

There’s no point being cagey: you’re hanging out for me to trash XOXO (Netflix’s new original feature-length film about dance music) and for the most part I’m happy to oblige. It’s a quintessential “I watched it so you don’t have to.” To say it’s a stiff and cheesy translation of EDM culture is to be easy on it. Forget comparisons to classics like Human Traffic; it makes even the unfortunate We Are Your Friends look like The Godfather.

OK, so this is not surprising. The release of the trailer earlier this month caused much groaning and eye-rolling in the dance-music community. I’m not into judging films by their trailers, but in this case it was pretty relevant. Amongst XOXO’s many problems is that it plays like a 90-minute trailer, or a TV commercial, thanks to its tiresome OTT visual style. The story of six partygoers whose lives intersect at a desert festival is riddled with clichés about fate, romance and believing in yourself. No plot twist is too forced or too heavy-handed for director Christopher Louie and writer Dylan Meyer.

A DJ equipment fail, a near-riot outside the gates of the festival when tickets are sold out and a visit to a plush VIP area are all handled in unrealistic and clumsy fashion. Among the pointless plot twists, two main characters spend most of the film in a sewer. In and around this mess, EDM iconography like hand hearts, lasers and P.L.U.R. is seemingly thrown in just to make sure bases are covered. And XOXO is yet another youth-oriented film that thinks it’s incredibly innovative for flashing the content of texts and chats onscreen along with emoji and other visual aids; this storytelling device gets old quickly.

Is there anything redeeming at all?

Well, it sure tries hard. To be honest, bagging it out sort of feels like picking on an out-of-it teenaged raver dressed like a butterfly who’s having a really good time. Who am I to tell her that her wings are covered with dust, she’s missing a sparkly sneaker and the music she’s dancing to is terrible?

XOXO is not without pedigree. Pete Tong is named as one of the film’s producers and the executive music producer (fittingly enough, as he’s had a hand in so many films about electronic music, from Human Traffic to 24 Hour Party People to the eponymous All Gone Pete Tong). The soundtrack features Skrillex & Diplo, Jai Wolf, an exclusive from Galantis and East & Young, and our boys Hayden James and Flume. It was filmed in part at the Beyond Wonderland festival in California, and many of the party scenes have a pretty authentic feel.

“It makes even the unfortunate We Are Your Friends look like The Godfather.”

As for what’s on screen, once you set aside (low) expectations, there are a couple of positives. Distracting visual style aside, there’s lots of colour and fascination in the film’s depiction of the festival and the Harajuku-neon costumed revellers; some of the blacklit cinematography is beautiful. The acting is actually not bad, considering the poor material the ensemble cast has to work with. The diverse cast of characters is a decent snapshot of Southern California’s racial and cultural mix; and, especially thanks to the lead performance by Sarah Jane Hyland from Modern Family as Krystal, XOXO does a pretty good job of showing the perspective of young female partygoers.

In one of the better and darker scenes Krystal has to fend off a friend and love interest who’s peaking on MDMA and becomes way too grabby. Other moments that actually work include the emotional dialogue between Ethan’s manager Tariq (Brett Delbuono) and Krystal about his immigrant father; and Tariq’s LSD-induced vision of a blissful journey into a toilet (a clever nod to Trainspotting) – set to Flume’s remix of Disclosure’s You and Me.

My favorite character is Neil, played by TV comedy veteran Chris D’Elia. Neil is XOXO’s (successful) attempt to troll us older heads: a grouchy 40-ish record-store owner and onetime DJ who’s always complaining about how much better it was back in the day, until the hilariously awkward scene in which he relearns how to let go and feel the EDM love.

The film’s hero, Ethan Shaw (Graham Phillips), a straightlaced kid from the suburbs who hits it big when his music goes viral on YouTube, is as milquetoast a central character as you could imagine; though it’s hard to tell if this is bad screenwriting or a knowing wink at Porter Robinson, his most obvious real-life reference. The character of villainous superstar Avilo (Ryan Hansen), an abusive ego-tripper who attempts to trap Ethan in a ghost-producing deal, is a not-so-subtle parody of some of the douchiest acts in the business (I’ll leave it to you to pick which ones).

Elsewhere there are labored references to real-life stars like Martin Garrix and Steve Aoki (an offhand joke refers to a cake emergency); a peripheral character, a masked performer named Walter Robot, is a mishmash of deadmau5 and Daft Punk. The fictional Ethan’s pop-EDM tracks sound pretty terrible to me, but I’m not the target market.

It’s not bad, it’s just silly

Overall, XOXO’s view of the music industry – where career-making record deals are done in a few lines of back stage dialogue, and an up-and-comer might lock a superstar in a dressing room and triumphantly take over his mainstage set – is about as believable as high-school fan fiction.

And that, I think, is the key to understanding the film. The audience for XOXO is probably not the college-aged millennials whose culture is depicted onscreen, but their younger brothers and sisters – young teens, not old enough to go out yet, who will watch it at home late at night, absorbing its portrayal of the music and the partying and the drugs, catching vicarious thrills. In this context, the film’s cartoonish style and simplistic romance makes a bit more sense and is even a bit more fun. This adolescent crowd may find it worthwhile, though they’ll probably outgrow it.

For the rest of us it’s often painful to watch – believe me I’m not trying to sell you on it – but XOXO is nothing if not sincere and heartfelt, and there’s the odd touching moment. To say it’s so bad it’s good, some future kitschy cult classic, is probably a stretch. Mostly it’s just silly. There are worse crimes. Meanwhile, the EDM generation is still waiting for a movie it can truly call its own.

Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1