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Mixtape (Netflix) gets a lot of fun mileage out of its nostalgia trip back to that decade eons ago, the 1990’s. When a middle schooler finds the mix her mom made her dad, it launches her on a musical quest into the past to try and connect with them, since they died when she was just an infant. Sad stuff, that. But Mixtape keeps the focus on heartwarming notes and the power of a perfectly-sequenced mix.
The Gist: Spokane, Wash., 1999. As we meet young Beverly (Gemma Brooke Allen), she’s writing a poem and considering dedicating it to her parents, young people themselves who are no longer with us. They’re pictured on her nightstand, decked out in ripped denim and band T’s, mom with a dyed-blonde mohawk and dad looking like he just walked out of Cameron Crowe’s 1992 grunge rom-com Singles. Beverly goes to school, her bright outlook on life tarnished a bit by the chiding of school bully Steve, and comes home to Grandma Gail’s (Julie Bowen) to begin her chores, which include cleaning up the basement. And that’s when she finds it, the “Kim [hearts] Zack Mix.” The mixtape was crafted by her Mom, and includes the requisite handmade cover art, a skeleton drawn in black Sharpie with a pink beating heart. She breaks out an old Sony walkman from another box, carefully pops in side one (“Love Riot”) of the Maxell UR-90, and promptly hears the ancient analog tech squeaking and garbling as it’s eaten in playback. Oh no! Dismayed, Bev pulls the tape out, only to discover the magnetic tape mercilessly unspooled. Bev returns to Kim’s handmade cover art, and she’s in luck — like any mixtape maker worth her salt, there’s a carefully plotted out track list with title and artist. It becomes Beverly’s mission to find and hear each song on the tape.
Beverly enlists the aid of surly record store owner Anti (Nick Thune) in her quest for the jams, and with each song’s revelation, she becomes more confident at school, drawing power from the power chords of Girls At Our Best! and The Stooges. (When Beverly first shows Anti the tape’s track list, he looks down his nose at it with classic record store worker arrogance. “Your parents had good taste,” he finally declares.) There’s a lot of 1990’s name drop nostalgia along the way — Y2K fears, and Ellen searching Napster for songs — and there’s some trouble, too, as Bev and her friends start feeling their newfound empowerment a little too much. Goth/grunge eye makeup, sneaking out to attend a rock show with Anti, and even a suspension from school. But it’s all in the service Bev crafting her own identity, and finding a way into the personalities of who her parents were.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Netflix’s raft of family-oriented fare includes the Brazilian film DJ Cinderella, about a teenaged DJ making mixes for her pop singer crush. Meanwhile, over on Hulu, there’s The Ultimate Playlist of Noise, about a master mixtape maker who faces down his impending hearing loss.
Performance Worth Watching: Gemma Brooke Allen, who has done some TV episodes as well as playing a young Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Kate, is fantastic here as Beverly, the ever-curious kid with a rambunctious wit and tenacious spirit who only wants to learn about the parents she never knew.
Memorable Dialogue: The day after breaking the tape, a determined Beverly seeks out the local record shop. And when she meets Anti, the archetypal record store clerk, he explains to her the dao of mixtape. “You have to listen to the songs in order, OK? A mixtape is a message from the maker to the listener, right? It’s not just about which songs, but in what order. Microseconds between segues, tempo changes. Does it fade out? Does it fade in?”
Sex and Skin: No way, dude.
Our Take: “A message from the maker.” That’s the line from Anti’s pontificating on Mixtape Law that resonates most with Beverly, since she sees the tape as a conduit to the parents who have always guided her life even though they died in a car wreck when she was 2. Gail, Beverly’s grandma, was a teenage mother like her daughter, and has worked double shifts for the post office since taking Bev in because she can’t bear the thought of failing Bev the way she believes she failed Kim. (She spends half the film on the phone with the bank, trying to secure Bev’s college fund from the potential destruction of Y2K.) And for Beverly, her sense of unknowing about her departed parents has guided her in a way Gail can’t, since Gail’s hung up on her own grief. The connectivity offered by the mixtape is the most tangible thing Bev’s had yet about her parents’ legacy in her life, and it’s heartening to watch her go on a mission to find the messages.
Mixtape works best when it’s riffing on nostalgia, whether it’s Anti schooling Bev and her girl gang in the ways of vinyl and music scene lore or the band T-shirts, Cheap Trick lyrics, and garage band stomping that make up the film’s musical ephemera. There might have been even more music in Mixtape — it could have used more scenes of the kids discovering punk rock scree or the sparkling lyricism of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. And whatever the budding relationship between Gail and Anti, it’s not explored with any kind of depth. But Mixtape’s heart is full, its ears are on, and its love for music and the message it sends is very, very real.
Our Call: STREAM IT. With a great lead performance from young Gemma Brooke Allen, Mixtape finds its heartwarming message in notes of fun nostalgia and some post-punk volume.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges
Watch Mixtape on Netflix
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