As the success of “La La Land” attests, movie musicals are making a comeback, and not just overstuffed and underacted Broadway hits. This new crop puts catchy original music and genuine love stories front and center, honoring the classic genre’s best qualities while updating them for contemporary audiences. The newest welcome addition is “EMO the Musical,” an adorable teen romance from Australia, which suggests that cynicism hasn’t fully taken over down under.
Director Neil Triffett has adapted his short film of the same name into a fully-fledged tale of teenage angst. It opens, as any good musical should, with a song. Ethan (Benson Jack Anthony, who would have made a fine Neville Longbottom) sings: “I dream of a world/Where everyone I know/Has scars on their wrist/Drawn in eye shadow/I wanted to buy razors/But Mum said ‘no.'” It’s upbeat and melodic, closer to pop than Emo rock (no complaints here), and at the end of it, Ethan attempts to hang himself in the school courtyard.
Expelled from his private school, Ethan ends up at Seymour High, where he immediately sets his sights on joining the Emo group and their band, “Worst Day Ever.” But first, the Christian kids wonder if he’s heard the good news, and before he can tell them to bugger off, he notices angelic Trinity (Jordan Hare). His muddled claims of being “a science-addicted, sex-educated atheist” don’t deter her, and a star-crossed romance unfolds as sweetly and innocently as only befitting a proper heartstring-pulling musical.
As hard as they try to resist, Ethan and Trinity just can’t stop kissing in the library, even though it could mean social suicide for both of them (“and not the good kind”). When Ethan finds himself in Trinity’s bedroom, she asks if he’s trying to take advantage of her. “I wouldn’t know how,” he replies. Apparently, sex is too mainstream for an iconoclast like Ethan. There follows, in what could have been a typical love song slot, an ode to sexual consent: “Consent’s a great idea/If we do it, let’s sign an affidavit/Just so it’s legally clear.”
When the Emo kids find Trinity’s Bible in Ethan’s bag, they threaten to kick him out of the band unless he burns it. Afraid of sitting out the big rock band competition (the winner gets a recording contract), Ethan relents. Trinity, in a clever bit of misdirection, doesn’t care as much about the Bible as she does that Ethan doesn’t seem to know who he is. “Why are you Emo?,” she asks him, and the only answer he can muster is, “I wanted to fit in.”
While it sounds like a story we’ve heard before, it’s all done with genuine charm and laugh out loud moments. When Christian club leader Isaac (John Prasida) sees Trinity holding a pamphlet on safe sex, Ethan defends her by claiming it’s his. “It’s the female edition,” says Isaac. “I like the pictures,” Ethan replies, holding up a diagram of the female reproductive system. In a silly running gag, the school only has one teacher, Mrs. Doyle (Bridie Carter), because everyone else has either quit or left in scandal. Mrs. Doyle reluctantly pushes serotonin boosters on the students, since the school receives money from a drug company.
If the whole Emo things seems a bit outdated, it works as a stand-in for any counterculture-turned-trend by identity-searching adolescents. The groups are so broadly sketched but specific in their humor that the film easily walks the line between camp and earnest storytelling. While Triffett is clearly poking fun at the archetypes his characters play, he has great empathy and respect for the lonely teenagers behind them.
The music, which Triffet co-wrote with Charlotte Nicdao and Craig Pilkington, is satisfying in all the right ways for the story’s size (don’t expect any rousing dance numbers or grand finales). The ear worm here is a twee love song in the style of the Moldy Peaches, which starts: “You’ve got wonderful lips/they’re just what lips should be.” The battle of the bands element weaves the songs naturally into the narrative, and Triffet only breaks the construct once or twice, though he could have gotten away with a few more moments where characters spontaneously break into song.
With a love story you can root for, a cheeky sense of humor, and a catchy melodic score, it’s hard not to fall for “EMO the Musical,” which is sure to hit with audiences young and old. We could all use a little of that Australian sun right about now.
“EMO the Musical” premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival in the Generation 14 section.