'The Ultimate Playlist of Noise': Film Review

Courtesy of HULU
Sincere and likable, but less deep than it could be.

Keean Johnson plays a teen losing his hearing in Bennett Lasseter's YA road movie.

An effective commercial disability-drama about a teen who knows he's about to lose his hearing, Bennett Lasseter's The Ultimate Playlist of Noise would look quite a bit better if it didn't have such lousy timing: Compared to Darius Marder's smart and deeply affecting Sound of Metal, which started streaming last month (just in time to introduce awards-minded viewers to Riz Ahmed's brilliant performance), this film's by-the-book YA approach feels like the training-wheels version of going deaf. The two pictures clearly expect to be seen by different audiences, but their proximity forces a viewer to re-ask old questions about stories that do this much pre-digesting of grief in pursuit of feel-good endings: Maybe a viewer who isn't mature enough to deal with the gray ambivalence of Metal just doesn't yet need a movie about life-altering loss.

Keean Johnson plays the poor kid in question, whose personal obsessions make impending deafness even more inconceivable: Marcus isn't just a music freak, the maker of custom playlists for every occasion, but he's given to wearing headphones over his earbuds, so he can hear ambient recordings of thunderstorms or crashing surf behind whatever pop he's cranking. (Marcus favors decades-old bands like Pavement, and watching the character develop through this retro-indie filter, one suspects screenwriter Mitchell Winkie wished a young Joseph Gordon Levitt could play him.)

Out at a rock show with his two best friends (Ariela Barer and Emily Skeggs), Marcus has his breath taken away by an opening act everyone else ignores: Wendy (Madeline Brewer) is a singer-songwriter who touches the virgin high-schooler's soul, but before he can manage to meet her, he's cold-cocked and having a seizure on the floor of the club.

A hospital visit reveals a brain tumor that will have to be removed in a month at the latest. Marcus's doctor (Bonnie Hunt) informs him that, given the tumor's location, he's going to lose all his hearing and won't be a candidate for any kind of hearing-aid technology. Personally, I'd get seventeen second opinions before saying goodbye to Thelonious Monk, Roy Orbison and the sound of a samurai pulling his blade from its sheath. But Marcus and his parents accept this news as final, and the boy immediately hears the world in a new way.

"Everything sounded sad — like it was saying goodbye," he tells us in voiceover, and throughout, the film's attention to the rich sonic texture of the world may make even a casual viewer reflect on the importance of sound recording to the movies we watch. (Whereupon that viewer should immediately go rent Midge Costin's Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.) Marcus decides he wants to compile one last playlist, gathering fifty exotic sounds for posterity on a solo road trip to New York City.

Few cinematic road trips are truly solitary, though, and certainly not ones aimed at teenagers. Wouldn't you know it, Marcus literally runs into that singer-songwriter as he's heading out of town. She jumps in his car, informs him that her crazy ex-boyfriend's about to kill them both, and urges him to get a move on.

On the road they bond over their shared love of fictional rock star Sylvie Scar and their admiration of Wendy's vintage Stratocaster. Wendy shares her rock-star dreams while helping Marcus collect recordings of rainstorms and fireworks. She gets him into the kind of trouble road movies demand, including some that tests a skeptical viewer's patience. (It's supposed to be rom-com adorable, but pulling the fire alarm and setting off sprinklers in a roller-skating rink probably just destroyed the place's expensive flooring. And roller rinks are more endangered than the sound of a dial-up modem's staticky handshake.)

Along the way, Marcus bares his soul to a girl who's more sounding-board/provocateur than person with a past of her own. A tragedy in Marcus' childhood determined this road trip's destination and, sadly, New York isn't going to give either of them the catharsis they hope for. But despite heaping more suffering on its pure-hearted hero than he should have to bear, the film's misery level never dips far below bittersweet — at least not for long enough that you don't know a montage will carry us through the pain. As honest as it wants to be about what Marcus is confronting, Playlist is the kind of movie where people mention the possibility of suicide often but nobody's really considering it. If it uses romance and hijinks as a way of suggesting to teens that the unthinkable might not really kill them, that's a worthy goal. (Insert your own remarks about surviving 2020 here.) But adding fewer spoonfuls of sugar to this kind of medicine might be good for everyone.

Production company: LD Entertainment
Distributor: Hulu
Cast: Keean Johnson, Madeline Brewer, Oliver Cooper, Rya Kihlstedt, Ian Gomez, Ariela Barer, Emily Skeggs, Bonnie Hunt
Director: Bennett Lasseter
Screenwriter: Mitchell Winkie
Producers: Ryan Bennett, Jeremy Garelick, Mickey Liddell, Will Phelps, Michael Schade, Pete Shilaimon, Nicole Stojkovich
Director of photography: Vincent Patin
Production designer: Kathrin Eder
Costume designer: Samantha Hawkins
Editor: Robin Gonsalves
Composer: Erick Schroder
Casting director: Amey Rene

99 minutes