XOXO, a love letter to the cult of EDM, is strictly for the already converted. The Netflix release follows six people as they search for love, drugs, and the best spot to see the stage at a fictional music festival where attendees dress like sugarplum fairies and dancing robots. Helmed by music video director Christopher Louie, XOXO is goofy and stickily sweet, like a mystery lollipop handed to you at an Avicii concert, but the film also lacks a strong take on the culture it’s documenting. It’s full of rave and fury, signifying nothing.
Ethan Shaw (Graham Phillips) is a bedroom DJ who’s recently hit it big on YouTube with the track “All I Ever Wanted,” whose million views (and counting) garner him an invitation to play a set at the fictionalized XOXO, an Electric Daisy Carnival-like music festival. In the first of many Idiot Plots, his manager and best friend Tariq (Brett DelBuono) botches his slot by getting drugged. A female concertgoer slips Tariq an unsolicited, acid-laced kiss, and he goes AWOL. Unprepared for the gig without his manager’s guidance, Ethan’s whole set is in jeopardy. If you have to ask whether the up-and-comer will get a chance to redeem himself — just in time to meet the girl of his dreams — you’ve never seen a movie before.
That romantic role is filled by Modern Family‘s Sarah Hyland, who seems to have primarily been cast as Ethan’s fellow raver Krystal because she and Phillips are of similar heights. You might recognize Phillips from The Good Wife, where he played the apple-cheeked son to Alicia Florrick. As an actor, the 23-year-old is like the movie he’s in, all wide-eyed sincerity and little else. His scenes with the saccharine Hyland have a knock-off Love Finds Andy Hardy vibe — if Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were really into house music.
Nearly all of the subplots in XOXO feel pulled from teen movies of the past, when the cool kids just wanted to have fun until Daddy took the T-bird away. Take Shannie (Hayley Kiyoko) and Ray (Colin Woodell), whose names sound pulled from an Annette Funicello movie. The couple is on the precipice of their last summer. She’s headed off to Manhattan (or as she describes it, “big, dumb New York”), and the two haven’t discussed the future of their relationship. As they’re both aware, that’s not a good sign. To celebrate one final gasp of love before their eventual split, the couple attempts to sneak into the festival through a sewer tunnel after tickets sell out. Instead of shimmying on the beach, they wind up covered in shit.
There’s also the resident Straw Grinch, present to scold the youths for their loud music. Neil (standup comic Chris D’Elia, who deserves better) is a former DJ who now runs a makeshift party bus for concertgoers, which breaks down on the side of the highway on its way to XOXO. Upon arriving at the festival, he scowls and sulks until he is forced to confront the ghosts of his past: Ryan Hansen, who played Neptune’s resident bro on Veronica Mars, is type-cast as Avilo, the evil DJ responsible for ruining Neil’s career. In having it out with his former colleague, Neil sees the error of his ways. Maybe this EDM stuff isn’t so bad.
Each of these subplots shares the same message: Life is short and best spent partying with someone special. Because XOXO hasn’t heard of subtlety, this advice will be delivered by Anders (Ian Anthony Dale), the handsome founder of the festival. He wanders around from scene to scene dispensing fortune cookie-style declarations. When Krystal is upset because she has yet to meet up with Jordan (Henry Zaga), a Tinder date for whom she has high hopes, Anders tells the young romantic that fate may have other things in store. “Sometimes we receive messages from the universe that are important,” he says, beaming with sage wisdom, “but we have a tendency to read them wrong.”
A much better movie is lurking at the fringes of XOXO, whose satiric edge is dulled by its lack of objective distance. (DJ Pete Tong, after all, serves as one of the producers.) Writer/director Louie, who has helmed music videos for Death Cab for Cutie and Kid Cudi, based the film on his own experiences going to warehouse parties as a teenager, and he shows a real knowledge and appreciation for the culture. Louie, though, is too enamored of the EDM scene that’s hit the mainstream since his adolescence to be all that critical of it.
That’s a shame — because the film’s best moment is a comic look at the absurdity of rave culture. Ethan, who doesn’t have credentials, can’t convince the bouncer to let him backstage to perform. The aspiring musician asks why he would have all his equipment with him if he’s not in the lineup. “Man, I don’t question the shit you people do,” the bouncer responds. “One guy out there has got a vacuum cleaner. I have no idea what he intends to clean with that thing.” Another humorous aside involves a PA in a last-minute panic. “They dropped Aoki’s cake!” she yells into a walkie-talkie. “I need a new one stat. Where is the nearest Costco?”
XOXO represents a small step forward from the bro-posturing of the 2015 bomb We Are Your Friends, in which Zac Efron plays a struggling DJ trying to hit it big. EDM, however, is still waiting for its first great movie, the film that captures the essence of the scene while being removed enough to see its flaws. Saturday Night Fever, for instance, examined the tribal rites of the disco era through an anthropological lens. Tony Manero embodies the wounded masculinity of the 1970s, dancing to the Bee Gees because he doesn’t have a future outside the discotheque. Strutting down the sidewalk in his white satin suit, Tony represents both the swagger and existential crises of a dying culture.
If you share the filmmakers’ starry-eyed view of EDM, you might like XOXO. Everyone else, however, is urged to buy a ticket to another show.