Ours is an age of nostalgia. Now that the rose-tinted glasses have increasingly turned their gaze toward the 1990s — they’re literally making a “That ’90s Show,” in case you didn’t already feel old enough — “Mixtape” almost feels timely. With a pre-Y2K setting, soundtrack featuring the likes of Vitamin C and Lit, and plot revolving around an orphaned 12-year-old named Beverly (Gemma Brook Allen) tracking down the songs on a mixtape belonging to her departed parents, Valerie Weiss’ very-young-adult dramedy is also a (deep) cut above the usual tween fare.
“A mixtape is a message from the maker to the listener,” says the jaded record-store owner (Nick Thune) to whom Beverly turns for help on her whimsical mission, and you can be sure that “Mixtape” abounds in similar pearls of wisdom. For the most part though, the film’s inherent sweetness keeps such lines from eliciting eye rolls even if they don’t always warm the heart the way they’re meant to. “Modern Family” star Julie Bowen plays the girl’s grandmother — her character, a postal worker named Gail, was a teen mom, as was her daughter — and is characteristically charming in a role featuring less screentime than you might expect or hope.
That’s in part because she’s mostly there to caution Bev against following in the footsteps of her mother, a punk-inclined musician who fell in love, had a kid, and got into a car accident that claimed her life along with her husband’s. Gail doesn’t talk about her much, clearly because it’s still too painful, which leaves Beverly feeling adrift. So you can see why she would look to the mixtape, which no longer plays but has a vaguely cryptic tracklist attached to it, as an anchor. Allen is truly endearing in the lead role, at times bringing to mind the sweetness that made Abigail Breslin’s turn in “Little Miss Sunshine” so memorable, and is a large part of why “Mixtape” works as well as it does. Weiss, whose credits include episodes of such series as “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Suits” alongside three prior features, is especially attuned to the scenes in which her young heroine comes closer to finding herself.
There are hijinks along the way, of course, from Bev and her two new friends (Audrey Hsieh and Olga Petsa) launching a third-party bid to have their school’s new mascot be the Fighting Mullets (complete with buttons and banners) to the inevitable power trio they form called Us Dudes R Sisters. For all that, the best scenes are those featuring Beverly and Anti, the record-store owner whose jadedness quickly crumbles in the face of Bev’s sincere desire to learn more about her parents through their musical taste.
Not everything works so well. Oddest of all given the film’s musical bent is that the soundtrack isn’t exactly all bangers — “Smile” by Vitamin C isn’t what first comes to mind when recalling the turn of the century, though the mixtape itself fares better. “More Than This” by Roxy Music and “Better Things” by The Kinks do such a good job of evoking the ’80s, in fact, that you may wish that’s when “Mixtape” was actually set. This is emblematic of the film’s attempt to appeal to both children and their parents, a difficult balancing act that results in some inevitable stumbles. There are a few too many “how do you do, fellow kids?” moments, though a couple of them at least seem intentional — watch for an impassioned poetry teacher who calls Emily Dickinson “the Scary Spice of her day.”
The third-act stakes are harder to buy, with the musical quest apparently causing a decline in Bev’s grades and a rift with her grandmother despite only appearing to take place over a few days, stumbling blocks that are resolved almost as quickly as they’re introduced. That’s often how it goes with kids, though: Yesterday’s wounds become today’s stories.