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‘The Ultimate Playlist of Noise’ can’t hit all the notes

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I’ve reviewed my share of teen weepies over the years. And there will always be more, because the powers that be aren’t dumb – there is always going to be a market for movies where attractive young people deal with obstacles both real and imaginary.

I should be clear – I’m not one of these people who automatically assumes that something with a YA label is somehow less than. There are plenty of high-quality YA entertainments across all media out there; to my mind, a good story is a good story. The unfortunate truth, however, is that those same powers that be aren’t always that concerned with a good story – for them, the overwrought feelings and melodrama are more than enough to get the job done.

“The Ultimate Playlist of Noise,” newly streaming on Hulu, isn’t QUITE that cynical. Directed by Bennett Lasseter from a script by Mitchell Winkie, it’s a well-intentioned film that offers a perspective on what it means to be a young person losing something (or someone) that you love. It’s the story of a young man who, faced with the loss of his hearing, undertakes to hit the road and record a collection of favorite sounds before they’re gone (for him) forever.

(If this rings familiar, last year’s exceptional “Sound of Metal” covered a fair amount of the same ground, only in a more nuanced and much less saccharine way.)

Now, this movie isn’t actively bad the way so many films that fall into the YA feelings category are. It has some things to recommend it – exceptional sound design, for example, with a killer soundtrack – but for the most part, it lands in the muddy middle. Fine and forgettable.

Marcus (Keean Johnson, “Cut Throat City”) is a fairly typical high school kid. He lives with his parents Alyssa (Rya Kihlstedt, TV’s “A Teacher”) and Dominick (Ian Gomez, TV’s “The Morning Show”); his best friends are Laura (Emily Skeggs, “Dinner in America”) and Sarah (Ariela Barer, TV’s “Runaways”). There are some things about Marcus that are a little different, though. He’s still carrying scars – physical and emotional – from a house fire when he was young. His older brother died saving him.

Also – he loves sound. Marcus is an acolyte of all things auditory, from man-made music to the sounds of nature.

One night, Marcus and his friends go to a club to see a band. He catches a brief snippet from the opener – a female singer-songwriter – and is entranced. But just as he prepares to speak to her, tragedy strikes in the form of an unexpected seizure.

As it turns out, Marcus has brain tumors. The good news is that they are non-cancerous and operable. The bad news is that their proximity to the auditory nerve means that their removal will result in the complete and permanent loss of his hearing.

With just a few weeks until the operation that will change his life, Marcus puts together a plan – a road trip where he will wend his way to New York City, recording sounds that he considers important along the way. The resulting compilation – his Ultimate Playlist of Noise – will serve as his way in to remember these sounds.

But when he sets out on this trip (without Mom and Dad’s permission, natch), he almost immediately runs into the singer who so entranced him that fateful night. Wendy (Madeline Brewer, TV’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) is also heading to New York after leaving an abusive boyfriend.

From there, the adventure moves forward. Marcus and Wendy drive across the country, recording sounds as they go. But when they finally arrive in New York City, Marcus discovers that much of what he thought he knew about his world and the people in it is considerably different from actual reality. And even with all of that, he still must deal with his looming loss – and the rest of his life.

“The Ultimate Playlist of Noise” feels very familiar. It strikes all the notes we’ve come to expect from this kind of YA romance/drama – the budding romance, the tragic illness, the ill-conceived journey … it’s all here. And while this version is executed well enough, it isn’t so strong as to be particularly memorable. Honestly, the most memorable thing about it is the aforementioned surface similarity to “Sound of Metal.”

That said, it’s worth noting that the sound design is quite good – no surprise considering the premise – and the soundtrack is quality as well. While that’s not nearly enough to salvage this film, it absolutely warrants mention.

In all, it plays like a John Green first draft that never got rewritten. The characters are largely flat, defined by easily-codified qualities. We learn two things about Marcus immediately – that he loves sound and he misses his brother. Those two things are still the only things we really know about him when the movie is over. And that’s your lead.

Don’t take this as a slight at the dude playing the part, though. Johnson’s actually a pretty charismatic kid, but this role doesn’t do him any favors. It’ll be interesting to see him in some more adult-oriented fare, beyond the tear-soaked black and white of mediocre YA. The ensemble’s pretty solid as well. Brewer is talented as well, though she’s stuck in Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory. She does her best. Kihlstedt and Gomez do good work in filling the standard-issue parental roles they’re given. And I’d be remiss if I failed to note the delight that is the Skeggs/Barer pairing – they’re a dynamic duo with charm to spare.

“The Ultimate Playlist of Noise” is well-intentioned and competently-made, but it simply can’t hit all the notes to which it aspires; it lacks the range. Again – it’s fine. Formulaic and forgettable, but fine. In the end, the sounds on this playlist just aren’t that catchy.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 18 January 2021 11:37

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