There’s not much glee in “Emo The Musical,” a mildly satirical spin on “Romeo and Juliet” that shows stretch marks from the expansion of writer-director Neil Triffett’s 16-minute 2014 short. Enjoying it’s international premiere in the Generation 14Plus strand of the Berlinale — where the short picked up a special mention award — the feature film, which apparently played well to the crowds in its world premiere at July’s Melbourne Film Festival, could gain traction among a younger, less discerning target audience at home and abroad.
After being expelled from his previous private school for faking his own hanging, angsty Ethan (Benson Jack Anthony) finds himself at Seymour High, a financially troubled institution that has been taken over by World Sales Pharmaceuticals and rebranded as a school determined to be “happy all the time.” (To this end the teachers hand out Seratonin samplers like candy, and the company’s mottos include “Depression is bad for the economy!” and “If you’re not feeling 100%, you should probably be on medication.”)
Determined to fit in with like-minded peers, he sets his sights on joining the fledgling Emo band Worst Day Ever. Led by the volcanic Bradley (Rahart Adams) on guitar, the combo is preparing to compete in the state School Rock Competition, to be judged by Emo legend Doug Skeleton (a cameo by Aussie TV and radio personality Dylan Lewis).
Complications ensue when Ethan is drawn to the chaste Trinity (Jordan Hare), lead singer for the Christian group that will be competing directly against Worst Day Ever. When she’s not surreptitiously trying to baptize him, she’s grappling with her dawning sexuality while maintaining a sunny demeanor in direct contrast to Ethan’s determined nihilism.
The climactic competition isn’t without a narrative twist or two, yet it’s giving nothing away to reveal that plot strands are neatly tied, and almost everyone ends up getting along just fine.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Triffett’s script, in the tradition of conflicted teens everywhere, is acting out to gain attention and validation. It fancies itself as barbed: Ethan burns Trinity’s Bible (followed by the crucifix on an altar); she sings the catchy “Was Jesus an Emo?” to her shocked prayer group before being promptly ex-communicated by the nun in charge during the draggy mid-section; and the raging hormones of basketball player/Emo bassist Roz (Lucy Barrett) overflow during the cinema-set “If You Leave.” Yet the cumulative feeling is more listless than scandalous, naughty instead of bold.
The self-described “Songbook” for the film, which was co-written by Triffett with Craig Pilkington and Charlotte Nicdao, is long on the confessional lyrics that define Emo, some of which display admirably clever wordplay, yet short on the edginess of the best music. Worst Day Ever sounds more like a middling power-pop band than, say, the seminal Washington, D.C. genre pioneers Rites of Spring.
What the cast lacks in charisma it makes up for in commitment, and the music mix is clean and punchy. Specific song titles aren’t listed in the closing credit crawl, which begins with a card stating that “by watching this film legally, you have supported thousands of creatives, distributors and crew” — a message more relevant than ever to the target audience.