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The story is told in narration, a quibble that initially was off-putting but blossomed as the film progressed, and fits well within this all-about-me mentality that has gripped social media. Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) and her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) live with their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald) and her two adopted daughters Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko). Jerrica explains that ten years prior, Aunt Bailey took them in when they had no place to go, further detailing the unexpected loss of her father, a tinkering inventor who gave his daughter her nickname, saying she was his diamond in the rough. His dedication and compassion has had a lasting impact on Jerrica and is a source of inspiration and a running thread in the story. The four are talented bedroom singers and products of their times, with Kimber especially, not so much addicted to technology and self-exposure on the internet, but simply a core member who embraces social media lifestyle as easily as the previous generation took to cell phones and beepers. It is she who most recognizes her sister’s powerfully emotive singing and songwriting abilities and, unbeknownst to her, uploads a recording of Jerrica (who is wearing a funny wig) to YouTube where it literally becomes an overnight viral hit. The girls form a band and are auditioned by mega successful producer Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) who signs them, redefines their image, and launches them into international success.
There are some minor (or not so minor) subplots, including a romance for Jerrica with Rio (Ryan Guzman), the band’s roadie and chaperone who is meant to keep the girls safe and following the rules. That relationship is one that feels set in stone by scriptwriting conventions, and while satisfying, dutifully checks off the romantic comedy boxes. There is also the small robot that Jerrica’s father built but didn’t finish that she realizes is filled with life-sized holographic messages from him offering clues to a scavenger hunt, but also fatherly inspiration that are pointedly cheesy but work, simply because Peeples plays it exactly right.
The film’s greatest strength comes in the broader message though, one that resonates surprisingly well. Not just another “girl power” movie, Jerrica and the girls are not the typical bratty, socially unaware, self-indulgent teens with mean streaks that are so pervasive in the genre. None of the four girls are overt stereotypes, despite the way Jem introduces each in her opening narration. They feel legit and playful, and best of all, experimental, as people this age aught to be. Peeples especially is a joy to watch, her performance understated enough that it gives her depth. There is nothing manipulative about these girls, as so many films like this often feel, and their love for each is refreshing. That Jerrica comments on that from the start, right to the camera, is also telling of the film’s approach. The relationships feel authentic and while the film’s premise dictates a wildly minimal opportunity for anyone in real life, the theme is convincing and should be inspiring. The supporting characters also shine, with Ringwold never the cardboard cutout her role seems destined to be though Lewis is perhaps the most fun, crafting a character that is necessarily rash but sincere in a I’m-mean-so-you’ll-learn way.
Issues arise with some pacing and there really is no antagonist per se. The conflicts are minimal to be sure and the girls are met only with some competitiveness rather than anything consequential. And then there is the source material. The film is not by any means an accurate representation of the cult-classic and fans probably deserve their confusion (though the vitriol against Chu was wholly unwarranted). The film could have easily stood on its own and probably been a better movie if it had dumped the animated inspiration and ventured forth like the superior Beyond the Lights (2014), a good film about about fame and commercialized music. There is a sharpness to this script that is lost in the overall story simply because of the plot. When Jerrica calls the internet her best friend, there is a dripping satirical flavor to it that feels really genuine but is buried under the weight of the story. There are some excellent musical pieces as well, especially the opening solo by Peeples and a wonderful bit on stage when the power goes out. While the movie isn’t for everyone, and might be an easy target for judgement, its often silly plot is secondary to the pointed look at modern society and the often genuinely touching moments.
Director: Jon M. Chu
Writer: Ryan Landels
Stars: Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Aurora Perrineau