Where were you when you learned that you'd be making your DJ debut at the biggest rave of the year? And that said rave was only eight hours away? Ethan, the sheepish main character of Netflix's straight-to-streaming EDM movie XOXO, gets the news in his kitchen, where his mom is cooking breakfast for his baby sibling. “Why are you being so weird?” he asks his best friend, also his manager, over the phone. The best friend grins: “I just wanted you to remember where you were the day your whole life changed.”
Ethan, played with Eisenbergian nervousness by The Good Wife's Graham Phillips, may only be in high school, but his song “All I Ever Wanted” has just crossed 1 million YouTube views, making him one of dance music's most promising new acts. The song, a trance composition with the uplift of a subway vent, is to XOXO what racism was to Crash: the thread that ties together a series of otherwise unrelated storylines. Krystal (Sarah Hyland), a young girl who hopes to find true love at the festival Ethan is DJing, wears its title in a bead bracelet around her wrist. Avilo, the blond headliner played by Ryan Hansen of Party Down, likes “All I Ever Wanted” so much that he tries to sign Ethan to his label. When we meet Neil (Chris D’Elia), a grumpy record store owner who thinks that rave peaked in the ’90s, he's rolling his eyes at the song’s by-the-numbers drop.
For all his cynicism, it is Neil who drives the movie's plot, doing so literally by chartering the bus that takes all the kids to the festival. Surely he won't then enter the festival, complain a little bit and then ultimately be revealed as the biggest raver of them all, right? Most of XOXO's plot may be as predictable as an EDM song, but it offers pleasures to those willing to give themselves over to its rhythms.
These pleasures often involve the struggles of Ethan's best friend/manager, Tariq, played by Brett DelBuono. Tariq has to cover a shift at his father's restaurant, so he arrives at the festival a few hours after the rest of the cast. Immediately, a random girl begins to make out with him — then pulls back to reveal a strip of LSD planted on her tongue. Whoops. His acid trip begins during the festival's Woodstock ’99 moment, when kids rush the barricades after a security guard tries to shut them out, and culminates in some Gravity's Rainbow/Trainspotting–style toilet immersion, Tariq diving walleyed into a psychedelic port-a-potty.
It's not easy to manage artists under such duress. Tariq learns this the hard way, and Ethan only makes it backstage after he's spotted by Avilo's manager. Avilo, however, acts less like an artist than a Roman emperor. “I own these people,” he says, Nero-like, looking out on the crowd. When Ethan recoils, the elder DJ turns the knife. “It's not that romantic,” he shrugs. In the world of XOXO, an EDM movie even more romantic than last year's We Are Your Friends, this is anathema, a phrase even more appalling than “make America great again.” Robespierre guillotined people for less. Avilo gets punched in the face, at least, though not till later. First, a sequence in which every main character simultaneously grows sad.
This is the movie's bridge. Ethan blows his set, Krystal gives up on love and Tariq's bad trip gets even worse. Two side characters, Ray and Shannie, find themselves trapped in the sewer. Soon enough, however, XOXO delivers not just a chorus but a key change, a big climax in which Ethan again plays “All I Ever Wanted” and everyone is redeemed.
For all the interlocking stories, few endings could be less like Crash. That film was about how guilt courses through society, how we are all on some level culpable. In XOXO, guilt is over, and the characters accept the beat the way Catholics take the eucharist. The rave has become a jubilee in the old-fashioned sense, a celebration in which sins are remitted and believers pardoned: Everybody is united before the music. To paraphrase that old club-kid Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for ye are all one in EDM.”
Alas, no one in XOXO is so eloquent. Most characters speak not in tongues but stiff cliché. That leaves Anders, the founder of the festival, a father figure who is part Paul and part Yoda, to deliver the moral. “I created this festival because I like to dance,” he tells Ethan, as if unrolling the first scroll of his life story. “Dancing” — he pauses, searching for the perfect words — “is” — a shorter pause — “important.” It's a shame that the film doesn't move as well as its characters.