'Emo: The Musical': Film Review | Berlin 2017
Australian writer-director Neil Triffett's high school-set musical, based on his short film, is a 'Romeo and Juliet' riff throwing together members of an angsty emo band and a Christian singing group.
“Could Jesus Have Been an Emo?” is one of the unexpected questions brought up — in song, no less — in Emo: The Musical, in which an emo band at an Australian high school battles it out with a group of Christian singers. This feature debut from writer-director Neil Triffett expands on his eponymous short. It's basically a musical Romeo and Juliet with black eyeliner and dark thoughts on one side and radiant visions of chastity and wholesomeness on the other. Though the film has plenty of weaknesses, especially in the second half, this should nonetheless go down relatively smoothly with audiences not unlike the appreciative and vocal teenie crowd at its screenings in the Berlinale’s youth-oriented Generation 14Plus sidebar.
Emo Ethan (Benson Jack Anthony, his ginger hair dyed pitch black) is expelled from his private school in the opening sequence after trying to hang himself (how that’s even possible will be explained much later). Will he be able to find happiness at his new but decidedly less posh school? There are several factors that might help him.
Firstly, there’s an emo band he’s desperately hoping to join as a guitarist, called Worst Day Ever, fronted by the duly eyelinered hunk, Bradley (Rahart Adams), and also consisting of a bass player and drummer. Then there’s an angelic girl, the appropriately named Trinity (Jordan Hare), to whom Ethan takes a shine, even though she happens to be the singer of the school's rival Christian folk band. And third, in an example of the film's occasionally rather weird sense of humor, a company selling mood-enhancing serotonin supplements becomes one of the establishment’s main donors, inundating the premises with posters and free samples.
The movie’s early going is a relatively well-oiled machine, introducing the main characters and their quandaries in often fairly recognizable situations but always with some humor and/or verve. An early lyric refers to the red marks on Ethan’s wrist done with “eye shadow/because mom wouldn’t allow me to buy razors,” while he rebuffs Trinity’s rather innocent advances (of course delivered in the form of a song called “Come to Church With Me”) with the explanation: “I’m a science-addicted, sex-educated atheist.” (In case it wasn’t yet clear: Emo: The Musical is definitely more suitable for progressive audiences than for traditional or religious ones.)
But in expanding his material from a short to a feature, Triffett's relative inexperience with feature-length work shows. (He's credited with the screenplay and also co-wrote the songbook with Craig Pilkington and Charlotte Nicdao.) The development of the intrigue is episodic and borderline herky-jerky, while the overarching theme of happiness versus depression — in particular, the paradox of an angsty, dark-minded emo boy falling in love and thus finding joy — is never really developed beyond the rather obvious surface contrasts.
The only exception is the song "Could Jesus Have Been an Emo?" (Sample lyric: “He felt the pain of all mankind/Emos do that all the time.") But that song, which should have been a duet featuring the two opposing sides, is instead sung by the protagonist’s love interest and her church group, diluting its impact and ignoring how the song relates to Ethan and his struggles.
Another problem is the filmmakers’ difficulty balancing the opposites-attract love story at the drama’s center with the many subplots involving other characters. The possessive Roz (Lucy Barrett) — Worst Day Ever’s emo-punk bassist, who forces Ethan to become her boyfriend because “the bassist and the guitarist of this band always date" — is given her own song and quite a lot of screen time. But the secret that makes her different from the others is either a really awkward tip of the hat to High School Musical or rather ridiculous (or perhaps both?).
And while it's relatively common for bit players to get one song in a musical, it's less customary for a supporting character to start singing a solo without having been properly introduced — or ever developed later, as is the case of the hunky wannabe boyfriend of Peter (Craig Hyde-Smith), the Christian group's wannabe-straight member. The love song this apparently nameless character sings has some clever lyrics that send up the idea of gays being responsible for all the evils in the world: “If my love for you is responsible for global warming/I’ll gladly take the heat.” This could have been a smart and witty contemporary take on a same-sex love song, but it's impact is muted because the character singing it feels like an awkward add-on to the story.
Apart from these structural problems, there are tonal issues as well. As a writer, Triffett’s allegiance to his characters isn’t always clear. Is he constantly mocking all of them or should his view be taken as raw honesty coming from a place of love? Whatever the case may be, the actors play their roles as straight as they can.
Anthony makes for an appealing lead, even if, like Hare, he’s somewhat boxed in by the fact his character isn’t finally all that complex; the third-act resolution can be seen coming from a mile off, robbing his minimally developed arc of any suspense or sense of surprise. Adams is the standout in the supporting cast, though possibly only because his dark emo makeup complements his angular features so well.
If all these points are taken into consideration, Emo: The Musical is kind of a hot mess. But it's undeniable that there's also something just so damn likeable about these good-looking youngsters warbling about their teenage troubles. With the obvious exception of Worst Day Ever's darker repertoire, most of the film’s songs are actually quite folky and straightforward. (The songs from Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl come to mind, though they are executed here with less musical finesse.) The actors’ singing voices all sound real and a little raw rather than Auto-Tuned, which only adds to the material’s charm and authenticity.
Production company: Mattheswood Productions
Cast: Benson Jack Anthony, Jordan Hare, Rahart Adams, Jon Prasida, Lucy Barrett, Craig Hyde-Smith, Ben Bennett, Geraldine Viswanathan, Kevin Clayette, Bridie Carter, Natasha Herbert, Dylan Lewis, Adam Zwar, Heidi Arena
Director-screenwriter: Neil Triffett
Producer: Lee Matthews
Executive producers: Yael Bergman, Jonathan Page, Shaun Miller
Director of photography: Ellery Ryan
Production designer: Simon McCutcheon
Costume designer: Andrew Infanti
Songs: Neil Triffett, Craig Pilkington, Charlotte Nicdao
Editor: Ian Carmichael
Casting: Thea McLeod
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Generation 14Plus)