Friday, October 23, 2015

Glam Power: Channel your inner tween girl for mostly irresistible "Jem and the Holograms"

Jem and the Holograms (2015)
118 min., rated PG.

Hasbro's "truly, truly, truly outrageous" 1985-1988 animated series "Jem" (or "Jem and the Holograms") gets translated into a glossy live-action treatment for the millennial YouTube-and-Instagram generation, but it's harder to resist than the sanitized Disney Channel feature it appears to be. The second effort in which horror-centric Blumhouse Productions converged with Hasbro, "Jem and the Holograms" is clearly targeted for a young female audience and achieves what it sets out to do on that front; think of it as counter programming to "Goosebumps." Written by Ryan Landels, the film is mostly a formulaic rise-to-stardom origin story about girls and their guitars, √† la 2001's bouncier and more satirically clever "Josie and the Pussycats" (itself a live-action adaptation of Archie Comics' all-girl band who got a shot at stardom with a record deal), but director Jon M. Chu (2013's "G.I. Joe: Retaliation"), who has shown choreography skill with two of the "Step Up" movies and concert documentary "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," knows well enough to approach the story's themes of individuality and musical expression with a sincere heart. It's the kind of fluff that the slow clap was invented for.

Musically talented wallflower Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) lives an unexceptional life in Pineview, California. After the death of their inventor father, Jerrica and little sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) moved in with their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald) and their foster sisters, Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). Their little familial unit is now coming down on hard times when Aunt Bailey informs Jerrica that they might lose the house. When Jerrica isn't being the caretaker of the family, she is usually writing songs in her bedroom, and one of those times where she actually records herself in a pink '80s-style wig, going by alter ego "Jem," strumming the guitar, and singing one of her original songs, Kimber decides to post the video on YouTube behind her sister's back. By morning, the video has gone viral and gained as much Internet popularity as "Twiggy the Waterskiing Squirrel." Record executive Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), the CEO of Starlight Music Enterprises, has already contacted Jerrica through email with the hope of signing Jerrica and making her over into the world-loving "Jem." Jerrica negotiates and only accepts after she's able to bring her three sisters along to L.A. The girls love being world-famous and getting set up in a Hollywood Hills mansion, but Jerrica will have to learn with the help of her late father's message inside of his inactive invention, a robot called "S1N3RGY (Synergy)," that she will have to create her own destiny as "Jem."

Framed as a truth-telling video diary from Jerrica herself, "Jem and the Holograms" takes its time to get the viewer warmly acquainted with the charming characters and does make a clear arc for our female protagonist who comes into her own. Their journey from being ordinary to famous certainly comes with its conventions, like a falling-out between the sisterly band when the unscrupulous Erica Raymond has solo plans for Jem, while the "Earth to Echo"-esque sci-fi element involving hologram-projecting robot Synergy comes in a bit late, only to seem a bit wedged-in and incidental. Director Jon M. Chu cleverly employs the device of intercutting YouTube clips of kids dancing and/or performing music, aided by percussive beats, with the story proper. It works well the first time in its use as a drum battle when Jem calls the shots on her deal with Erica through email. Near the 113-minute mark, though, when Jem has already learned that she has to create her own destiny and not fear the unknown, an onslaught of Instagram testimonial videos made by her fans who incessantly praise her becomes a little much, to the point of being gimmicky, repetitive, and precious rather than simply aspirational and empowering. On stage, Jem even shouts, "This is our time!" to her screaming fans, as if she were Ren McCormack from "Footloose" or running for the presidential election. It's the one overly artificial note that nearly takes a hammer to everything the film has already achieved but still can't undermine how much it wins over the audience. 

Big-screen newcomer Aubrey Peeples, resembling a face morphing between Kat Dennings and Kristen Stewart, is naturally winning as Jerrica/Jem, an unassuming role model who can still work a crowd. Stefanie Scott (2015's "Insidious: Chapter 3") is a vivacious eye-catcher as open-book younger sister Kimber, although when the story centers so much on Jerrica wanting to discover the message their father left to her, it's an odd oversight that Kimber wasn't left anything by her father (was Jerrica his favorite?). Hayley Kiyoko and Aurora Perrineau, as foster sisters Aja and Shana, have their sassy moments, particularly the former as an artistically one-of-a-kind juvie attendee, but they are clearly just part of Jem's multiracial entourage. The film has a welcome edge in the form of Juliette Lewis' record producer Erica Raymond. In what is otherwise an archaic movie clich√©the Calculating Music Producer—Lewis gets to dig in her claws and make the stock role a lot more fun to watch than if it were occupied by a lesser actress. Given her distinct delivery and expressions, she makes certain lines snap, like when she encourages Jem and the girls to "squinch" and to "look like you're having fun but don't really have fun" when coming out of a limo for a red-carpet event. Even if he seems a tad too old to be playing Jem's obligatory love interest, Ryan Guzman (2015's "The Boy Next Door") is a charismatic specimen as Erica's intern son Rio. His just-out-of-the-shower moment is bound to get a reaction out of squealing teenage girls. Saddled with a slimly conceived part, former teen queen Molly Ringwald is still a wonderful face from the past to see on the screen again as Aunt Bailey. Also, Nicolas Braun has a funny bit role as Erica's goth parking valet who constantly bugs her to listen to his demo.

From an adult perspective, "Jem and the Holograms" was not made for a 28-year-old man, but tween girls are going to dig it. The writing does not always hold up to close scrutiny. Why is there no mention of Jerrica and Kimber's mother? How is it that a record exec immediately wants to sign Jerrica, based on one hit video, and her sisters before even seeing their talent? The foreclosed-home subplot with Aunt Bailey is also dropped without the proper payoff, but if you want hard reality from your "Jem and the Holograms" movie, you're barking up the wrong tree. When the film works, though, the four young actresses share a natural bond and eventually could pass as a real-life all-girl band, and the songs are toe-tapping and energetically performed, particularly the undeniably catchy "Youngblood" at L.A.'s fictional Open Air Club and their finale of "I'm Still Here." Overall, this live-action teen fantasy has the lasting power of a bubblegum pop single and no reason to be two minutes shy of two hours, but it's wholly likable in a cheesy, girls-with-pink-eye-shadow-and-guitars sort of way and wears as much glam and glitter on its sleeve as it does heart. If you meet it halfway, you may just find your inner 13-year-old girl.

Grade: B - 

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