XOXO — Review

Graham Phillips in a scene from Christopher Louie’s XOXO.

“[An] inability to flesh out the story makes for a torturously tedious experience.”

by Ken Bakely

The following is an open letter to Christopher Louie, the director and co-writer of XOXO.

Dear Mr. Louie,

You wanted to make a movie, and you did it. Congratulations! I really mean that. That achievement alone means that you’ve gotten a lot farther than most of those who aspire to filmmaking. This is quite a directorial debut. Your movie, XOXO, is filled to the brim with color and light, neon yellows and purples and greens, explosions of glowing highlighter ink, infused by hallucinogenic aesthetics. Individual scenes are designed beautifully. Sunlight starkly streams in through windows during daytime interiors, like something Adrian Lyne would do. It’s a kind of look we rarely see in movies today.

You may wonder why this review is styled in the form of a personal address. The reason is that I have rarely been so struck by a filmmaker’s ambition yet so turned off by what the result is. I felt the need to express my feelings by communicating them to you directly – this is helpful to clear my head on this, regardless of whether or not you ever get ahold of these words. I want to talk without the filter of perfunctory paragraphs and nonsensical three dollar adjectives – although I’m quite good at those, if I do say so myself.

This film, you say, comes from personal experience. In another browser tab, I’m reading an interview you did with The Hollywood Reporter, in which you state that growing up in Southern California, raves were a part of your adolescence. Then you became a DJ at the age of seventeen. Who better than someone like you to write this story? It seems so personal – a young man named Ethan (Graham Phillips), a bedroom DJ who gains notability online, is invited to XOXO, the largest EDM festival in the United States. Of course, complications ensue, including Ethan’s inability to find his manager Tariq (Brett DelBuono), and falling amid an endless sea of people, drugs, stories, and plot threads, all intertwining on their way to some kind of goal, one larger than the place they have come to, and an outcome more grand than anything that will happen here.

My biggest issue with XOXO is how little it cares to develop its characters. The screenplay, which you conceived with Dylan Meyer, threatens to create a degree of anonymity from scene to scene. Ethan and Tariq’s difficulties are the most explored, but there are long periods of time in this 92 minute movie where a number of other subplots are looked at. There’s Krystal (Sarah Hyland), who is dragged to XOXO by her friends. She’s long been obsessed with finding her soulmate, but fears that she will have little luck in a scene dominated by hookups.

And there’s also Shannie (Hayley Kiyoko) and Ray (Colin Woodell), a couple who come to the festival with emotional baggage – Shannie is about to move to New York City to accept an exciting new job, but this means that their relationship will have to take the dreaded long-distance plunge. Even more, there’s Neil (Chris D’Elia), a thirtysomething who is a long time attendee of the festival. Yet year after year, he becomes more discouraged and cynical at the evolution (or devolution) of the EDM festival scene. It just seems like a cold, hollow product, he thinks, and all the kids are glued to their phones!

The problem with these characters is that they have no significant attributes beyond this. Ethan is just a DJ who is looking for a big break. Sarah is just a girl who’s looking for her “soulmate”. Shannie and Ray are just a couple with unresolved, pre-LDR tensions. Neil is just a guy who feels lost by every turn of events. And Tariq is just a guy caught at a crossroads between working with Ethan and his own family’s wishes for his life.

They aren’t real people. They have no other hopes or dreams or ambitions. They’re one-dimensional archetypes, who have little more characterization than someone credited on the IMDb solely as Drug Guy (Scotty Dickert), an eccentric, far-gone character who wears a GoPro taped to the helmet on his head, has a jacket full of various drugs, sorted by type and effect, and drifts arbitrarily in and out of scenes, muttering some crazy, random dialogue, and exiting until he’s needed again to break up a moment.

If a drama has characters without depth or detail, then there’s no drive to it. It doesn’t matter how big, flashy, and spectacular the festival scenes on the main stage are (and they’re really quite something) if there’s no reason to feel for the emotional backdrop behind the film. It’s this inability to flesh out the story which makes XOXO a torturously tedious experience. Many times I asked myself why I should be invested in these people. Your film never gave me a reason to.

I swear I’m not being condescending, although you may take it that way. In your THR profile, you are dismissive of anyone who would criticize what you have made. And certainly someone like myself, who has never picked up a camera in a professional capacity, and is many years younger than you, with less life experience, is the kind of someone I’d believe that you – or anyone else – would dismiss. It’s understandable, but rather feckless, if you ask me. It’s easy to see you are a talented visual artist. But obviously, good movies aren’t made simply because they look pretty. We all go to the movies to feel things, not just see them. Otherwise, it feels cold, tactile, and distant.

And that’s how I felt after finishing XOXO. I was so impressed by the beautiful visual compositions, but dramatically underwhelmed by the lack of, well, drama. There’s a germ of a good movie in here, a great pinwheel of a story which pulls in and in, before exploding out with a unified story and characters fully interactive. But that’s not what’s here. I’m sorry that I can’t say anything nicer.

Good luck, and thanks for reading.

All my best,
Ken Bakely