‘XOXO’ falls short of its cinematic ambitions

Sebastian Sada

“Peace, Love, Unity and Respect,” four tenants of electronic dance music culture, remain underdeveloped in Christopher Louie’s feature-length homage to EDM. His directorial debut, “XOXO,” is pieced together by narrative tangents that are as ambitious as they are disappointing. 

In “XOXO,” an aspiring DJ named Ethan (Graham Phillips) secures the opportunity of a lifetime when he’s selected to perform at a popular music festival. With the help of his best friend and manager, Tariq (Brett DelBuono), he travels to the festival and meets an eccentric couple (Hayley Kiyoko and Colin Woodell) committed to sharing one last date before parting ways. Simultaneously, a hopeless romantic named Krystal (Sarah Hyland) searches for a potential “soulmate” — all while booming music, vibrant visuals and intoxicated individuals swarm the festival grounds.

From the start of the film, director Christopher Louie presents an original vision for the narrative — one that, much to the viewer’s dismay, is too reliant on swift cuts, supplementary music and eccentric visuals. The sum of these work in the film’s favor for most of its early scenes, but their excessive use — and Louie’s dependence on them — is aggravating and diminishes “XOXO”’s potential for success.

The film’s surplus of music video footage and cinematic material is exacerbated by the heavily clichéd, uneven screenplay at its core. Louie’s decision to center the story around six characters works against him, in large part because appropriate exposition remains absent from the narrative altogether. Although viewers are provided with some details about the characters and the issues they intend to overcome, their progress fails to resonate as a result of having nearly empty backstories to support them.

This missing exposition, discouraging as it may be, foreshadows another major flaw in “XOXO”’s screenplay — the lack of appropriate resolution. Several of the issues plaguing the film’s central characters remain unresolved by the end of the film, frustrating any viewer who has endured 92 minutes of mediocrity.

The insignificant exposition and resolution stems from Louie’s unclear direction for the project. Despite his success in numerous music-driven sequences, the story veers in a multitude of directions that give rise to unnecessary narrative tangents, most of which detract from the two most intriguing plots in “XOXO”: Ethan’s journey to success and Sarah’s journey to love. Subplots like Tariq’s intoxication, Nate’s (Chris D’Elia) escape from angry customers and the couple’s attempt to break into the music festival impede the narrative’s progress. Subsequently, the whirlwind of events unfolds in an extremely chaotic, unappealing fashion that burdens the viewer.

Granted, Louie makes it evident that “XOXO” is his attempt at a film unlike any other. The film’s captivating cinematography, swift editing, gorgeous visuals — from its costume design down to its vibrant color palette — and unique subject matter make it stand out from other young adult dramas. These qualities, however enchanting, fail to redeem the film from its inherent chaos. Even its plethora of engaging performances, notably from Graham Phillips and Hayley Kiyoko, are overshadowed by the lack of centrality that plagues the film and frustrates its viewers. 

Ambitious as “XOXO” may be — and unique because it appeals to millennials who are fascinated by EDM culture — it is far too flawed to give Louie the credibility he seeks. The tenants of “Peace, Love, Unity and Respect” that Louie strives to showcase never quite flourish on screen, nor does he inspire viewers to “love” and “respect” his ambitious directorial debut.

“XOXO” is now available to stream on Netflix.

Running Time: 92 minutes
Rating: TV-MA
Score: 2/5 stars