Netflix’s XOXO Raves Us to Sleep

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XOXO Plot Summary:

The lives of six strangers collide in one night at an EDM festival — romance, drama, and comedy ensue.

I think there’s a difference between a movie being simply bad and being “not good.” XOXO is certainly not good, but it’s too passionate and too admirable an attempt for me to call it “bad.” The best real compliment I can give it is that it’s a movie that got made and released, and it will look good on a lot of people’s resumes.

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The film is about six desperate, lonely strangers whose lives intersect at the XOXO Electronic Dance Music Festival through a series of chance meetings and cross-romances. And no, saying that isn’t a spoiler. Every synopsis of the film you can find will tell you the same thing. Therein lies the film’s first main problem: before we even begin watching it, we already know how it will end (especially if you’ve seen films such as Short Cuts and Magnolia that have popularized this formula). Never do we wonder what it’s leading to, and even when events become pivotal to the story, nothing ever feels dramatic. Even if the film knows that we know how it ends, what happens along the way often isn’t engaging enough to make us want to see it happen. Scenes simply play out one after the other with virtually no sense of tone or pacing.

Most of the characters seem like the kind that would make potentially great supporting characters in another movie. Graham Phillips plays Ethan, a young and ambitious DJ whose new song “All I Ever Wanted” has blown up on YouTube. Now he’s heading to the festival for his first live performance, as booked by his friend and manager Tariq, played by Brett DuBuono. Hayley Kiyoko and Colin Woodell play Shannie and Ray, a couple attending the festival during their last day together before their relationship becomes long distance. Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland is Krystal, a young suburbanite with plans of meeting her long distance boyfriend for the first time at the festival. Comedian Chris D’Elia plays Neil, a grumpy store owner who’s returning to the festival for the first time in a number years for seemingly no other reason than to meet up with the other characters at the end and give them something to do.

Despite presenting itself as an ensemble piece, Graham Phillips’ Ethan always feels like the main protagonist. This is mostly because the character with the biggest goals (preparing to perform for the first time in front of a crowd of thousands is much more psychologically intriguing than any romance), but also because the other characters aren’t very interesting. There isn’t a single trait that defines any of these characters other than that they all really like electronic dance music. Chris D’Elia’s character is a slight exception, with his randomly inserted, but consistent apathetic musings being the film’s short-winded source of laughter.

Sarah Hyland in XOXO
Photo Courtesy of Netflix

This would all be easy to overlook if the individual stories were told well. However, the very foundation of this film’s storytelling narrative is built on plot convenience. Of course, when Ethan’s party bus breaks down, there’s a van of hippies driving by to give him a ride. As we all know, the plot requires him to be there on time. But – of course – once he gets on stage the venue doesn’t have the cables to support his equipment. And – of course – his urgent text messages to Tariq won’t send, despite them being in the same venue. And – of course – they both arrive at XOXO around the same time, even though they left hours apart from one another and the venue is a considerable distance away. And – of course – Sarah Hyland’s character gets stuck in a storage closet charging her phone so she can meet a random stranger to confess her feelings to, despite being at a festival full of other random strangers. And – of course – her and Ethan meet up in the crowd at the end of the film to start a romance with absolutely no basis so the final scene can have a pretty bow on it. Of course, of course, of course, of course. The screenplay functions like a first draft outline of what this kind of intertwining ensemble film should feel like, except the writer forgot to go back and fill in all the important details later. It all makes too much sense.

A comment must be made on the film’s approach to sound and sound mixing. I often find detailed technical criticisms to be nitpicky, but in the case of XOXO, it cannot be overlooked. Every scene that takes place inside the festival commits the common movie sin of having the characters talk at normal volume while loud music blares behind them quietly. This is one of the most common mistakes made in cinema, and is often excusable, but this film does it in almost every single scene, and to varying to degrees. There is even one scene that takes place directly to side of a stage, in which characters are talking and extras are dancing in the background, but it is dead silent. Later, towards the end of the film, there is one scene is which it is finally done correctly, with characters struggling to yell to one another over the loud music blaring around them. My guess is that the director, first-timer Christopher Louie, suddenly became aware of his mistake during the tail end of production and decided to fix it for whatever shooting they had left. The result, unfortunately, is a completely unrealistic, messy soundscape in which the only way to fix it properly would be to re-shoot almost the entire film. Come to think of it, though, given everything everything else, that might not be a bad idea.

However, I must reiterate: XOXO is, for all of it’s massive flaws and dysfunctionalities, not a terrible film. It just is not a good one. Louie’s vision is clear as is his passion, and the film is, if nothing else, a commendable endeavour. He’s very skilled at assembling car parts, but he can’t quite the motor running just yet.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

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