Nightlife has notoriously been tricky for Hollywood to capture on film. Lean too hard into the chaos of it all, and you wind up with a nonsensical mess that barely hangs together as a coherent narrative. Steer too clear of the debauchery that it entails, and the resulting film is a toothless, flaccid imitation. More than most, XOXO – the latest “Netflix original film” to hit the streaming service – tows that delicate line, delivering a fun (albeit lightweight) ensemble comedy/drama.
Like an EDM version of Love Actually, the film follows a disparate group of strangers as they make their way to XOXO, the nation’s biggest festival devoted entirely to electronic dance music. Though a disclaimer at film’s end declares that its production is not affiliated with the real-life Portland-held event, it’s clear that this atmosphere was likely the inspiration for filmmaker Christopher Louie’s directorial debut.
We’re first introduced to Ethan Shaw (Graham Phillips), an up-and-coming musician whose latest single has just received 1 million views on YouTube. When his friend/manager Tariq (Brett DelBuono) books him a last-minute set at XOXO, Ethan – along with a host of other characters – tries to make his way through a crowd of thousands for his one chance at fame. Meanwhile, Sarah Hyland (Modern Family) – who also serves as an executive producer on the film – plays Krystal, a somewhat naive young woman who believes that XOXO will bring her a chance to finally meet her soul mate.
As the ostensible leads of the film, both Phillips and Hyland are incredibly charming, and it’s telling that XOXO leans so heavily on perhaps its two purest, most optimistic characters. Through its interconnected web of stories, the film aims – and largely succeeds – in conveying a message of passion, determination and following one’s heart. That’s some pretty sentimental terrain for a movie that in part chronicles a character’s drug-fueled trip through the sweaty abyss. Yet, XOXO offers enough over-the-top hi-jinks to keep itself from slipping too far into melodrama.
Even if some of its plot points fall on the predictable side, the film’s cast – including a notable appearance by Chris D’Elia that has the 36-year-old comedian playing the eldest of the main players – lifts the movie up, and the screenplay by Dylan Meyer (with a story credit for Louie himself) offers a series of satisfying yet convenient twists that make XOXO among the sweetest and most endearingly sentimental tales about the EDM scene to ever make it to the big or small screen.
Another standout element of the film is – appropriately – its music. Veteran DJ Pete Tong serves as music supervisor and a producer for the film, and under his watch, XOXO features a number of energetic, youthful tunes that perfectly fit the festival setting, with Michael Brun’s “All I Ever Wanted” by far the most prominent. Yet, the music is never too intrusive that it threatens to overwhelm the film’s story or its characters, neatly serving to accentuate the backdrop of their misadventures instead.
There’s something to be said for the way XOXO marries the devil-may-care attitude of EDM with a borderline inspirational message, and yet it does so without becoming a parody of itself and while doing great service to its promising young cast. The film has plenty of opportunities to delve into dark territory and flirts with doing just that on a couple of occasions. Just like the world of EDM, the movie has its trippy and weird moments (including what appears to be a Trainspotting homage), but the true goal for Louie and his team here appears to be to bottle up that time in one’s youth where anything seems possible and a world of possibilities awaits.
With this as only his debut film, it will be interesting to see if Louie and his stars are able to build on the potential demonstrated with XOXO. In the meantime, this effort will make perfect date night viewing for Netflix subscribers and will likely prove to be just the latest in the streaming service’s ongoing list of hit original programs.
A cast of bright young stars and a promising new filmmaker transform XOXO into a fun, light-hearted romp that delivers a rare win for films based on the world of electronic dance music.