A high school comedy about an Ozzy-obsessed outcast who ropes his only friend into forming a post-death metal duo called SkullFucker in order to win the Battle of the Bands (and prove his value to all of the popular kids in their Portland suburb), Peter Sollett’s “Metal Lords” is small and patchy even by the standards of a throwaway Netflix movie that feels like it’s already been forgotten for you.
Screenwriter D.B. Weiss may be a bonafide head-banger who’s spent most of his career trying to bring SkullFucker to the screen — the “Game of Thrones” co-creator first began shopping the script before he ever stepped foot in Westeros — but most of the story beats in this overfamiliar coming-of-age saga are as metal as the Imagine Dragons cover that SkullFucker’s rivals bust out during the climactic face-off. It isn’t until the third act that “Metal Lords” finally shreds with any of the rage against the machine frustration that’s fueled similar let’s start a band films like “We Are the Best!” and “Linda Linda Linda,” and it’s hard to imagine that a Chuck Klosterman cameo or a killer rendition of “War Pigs” will be enough to keep heavy metal purists on the hook for that long.
But their perseverance would be rewarded to a certain degree, and not only because Tom Morello ghost-wrote SkullFucker’s big song. The devil is in the details when it comes to “Metal Lords,” which turns out to be the saving grace of a film that desperately needed the devil to show up somewhere. Flimsy and stilted as this thing might be on a scene-by-scene basis (an awkward bit in which SkullFucker auditions new bassists crystallizes the botched “‘Sing Street’ meets Judas Priest” vibe), Sollett’s movie vividly radiates with the all-too-relatable energy of being an unmoored kid who’s looking for any kind of identity that might anchor you in place. “Metal Lords” may never find the rhythm a movie like this needs in order to stay in the sweet spot between goofy and charming, but there’s a stubborn kernel of truth to how casually its young characters learn to hear themselves by listening to Judas Priest.
Having said that, meek narrator Kevin Schlieb (a very subdued Jaeden Martell) would listen to just about anything Hunter Sylvester (electric newcomer Adrian Greensmith) told him to. Every gawky outsider with a big personality needs a go-along sidekick, and that’s just the role Kevin plays for his only friend. Kevin’s voiceover tells us that metal is just the latest of the many different phases that Hunter has gone through since his slimy dad (too obviously Brett Gelman) split up from his mom, but the music suits the anger that he inherited from the divorce. Also, the kid’s got the right haircut for it. Becoming a high school metalhead in 2022 has the added bonus of putting Hunter so far outside of the popularity index that people have to either accept him for who he is or not at all, and he doesn’t seem to mind that almost everybody chooses the second option. All that matters to Hunter is that, by some wild stroke of good luck, his shy buddy Kevin happens to be a totally sick drummer. And thus, SkullFucker is born.
The only problem is that Kevin and Hunter need a bassist, and they’re fresh out of friends. Being a two-piece worked out for groups like Tempel and Lightning Bolt (or The White Stripes, as Kevin quietly points out), but they didn’t have to compete at Battle of the Bands in Glenwood Lake. When Kevin spots the mousy Emily (Isis Hainsworth) losing her shit at marching band practice one day, he thinks that he’s found the perfect fit — her classical cello would be a pretty unexpected sound in a high school talent competition — but Hunter refuses to entertain the idea of playing with a girl.
His unalloyed fixation on the classical metal image leads to some decidedly un-metal choices, all of which might be more intriguing if Weiss’ erratic script were the least bit interested in exploring what makes Hunter tick. Instead, “Metal Lords” awkwardly tries to split its attention between the two friends, unfolding with all the broken chords and bum notes of a half-assed band practice. There’s something pure about the tunnel-vision approach the story takes to SkullFucker’s inception — finding something to call your own at that age can be truly all-consuming — but the film’s choppy flow and stilted comedy leaves its endearingly drawn characters even more adrift than they are to begin with.
A well-observed scene where two characters lose their virginities in the parking lot of a synagogue is the rare and funny exception that proves the rule, but other, more serious details (particularly Emily’s struggle with depression) aren’t treated with the nuance they demand. Outlandish tangents — including an early car chase that plants the seed for Kevin to become his own person, and a late detour to a rehab center run by Joe Manganiello — only serve to distract from fleshing out the inter-band dynamics that make us want SkullFucker to slay all of its enemies, and Hunter’s insistence that they “don’t fit in” is never given the time it needs to become more than a mantra. He says that metal is all about sacrifice, but “Metal Lords” sacrifices far too much in its bid to remain light as a feather while thrashing through some major teenage woes. It’s only when SkullFucker is behind their instruments that the movie goes hard enough to find something cathartic in the same dissonance that holds the rest of it back.
“Metal Lords” is now streaming on Netflix.