The rave movie as a genre isn’t exactly as robust as perhaps it should be. Then again, it’s not necessarily easy to continuously reinvent a story centered around drugs and DJs. And yet, XOXO, released just in time to coincide with Electric Zoo and Burning Man weekend on Netflix, makes one feel as though there ought to be more to rave film offerings than essentially A Midsummer Night’s Rave and Go.
In Welles-ian fashion, XOXO was written, directed and produced (plus acted in if you count his cameo as “artist”) by Christopher Louie, and boasts the mantra, “Eat. Sleep. Rave. Repeat.” It is one that populates the intertwined lives of those attending SoCal music festival XOXO–well, that and PLUR (Peace. Love. Unity. Respect, for rave novices). Up and coming “bedroom DJ” Ethan Shaw (Graham Phillips) serves as the anchor around other key players in the narrative, including his manager, Tariq (Brett DelBuono), an oppressed only child of Lebanese descent, who can’t seem to get his father to understand his desire to break out of being a waiter at the restaurant he owns. So determined to do so, in fact, that he lands Ethan a last minute spot at XOXO the night before it’s to kick off. Panicked and flabbergasted, Ethan acts all kinds of bitch boy when Tariq picks him up the following morning and informs him he’ll be taking a party bus to the festival so that Tariq cover another waiter’s shift at the restaurant. His promise that he’ll be there to see Ethan’s performance and deal with the business end of things does not reassure the latter. Still, Ethan can’t walk away from arguably the greatest opportunity of his life and obliges Tariq by getting on the bus, operated by a curmudgeonly former raver, Neil (Chris D’Elia), who has nothing but contempt for the scene as it is now.
Ethan at first finds himself next to a chatty, already drug-addled XOXO-goer while trying to put some finishing touches on his setlist. Mercifully, the couple next to him, Shannie (Hayley Kiyoko) and Ray (Colin Woodell), invites him to sit next to them, unaware that he is the Ethan Shaw they’re most excited to see play the festival. As the trio gets to know one another, Ethan learns that Shannie is moving to New York City for a job, a topic she hasn’t seemed to have discussed the logistics of with Ray in large part due to denial. But before things can get too personal, the bus breaks down, setting in motion the many difficulties Ethan has in taking his place on the stage.
First time festival-goer Krystal (Sarah Hyland) is also having challenges of her own, convinced she’s going to meet up with her soul mate–a guy she met online who sent her Ethan’s single, “All I Ever Wanted.” It’s, indeed, this song that makes her so sure he’s the one for her. Meanwhile, Tariq has problems of his own after his father keeps him working past the scheduled time and is forced to risk total disownment by leaving abruptly. To compound matters, his phone gets no reception in the desert and a random XOXO attendee runs up to him and kisses him, leaving behind a tab of ecstasy in his mouth that foils his entire plan for professionalism.
So fucked up does Tariq become that everything around him becomes an often terrifying alternate universe. At one point, Louie even pays homage to that famed toilet diving scene in Trainspotting, as Tariq is lured into the depths of the portapotty when he sees a crowd beckoning to him. It is often the scenes of Tariq’s hallucinations that are the most enjoyable to watch unfold, painting a rich (even if cliche) portrait of EDM culture.
And, speaking of EDM culture, it wouldn’t be a rave movie without an Avicii-like caricature of a DJ named Avilo headlining the show. His diva-douche antics, including trying to make a record deal with Ethan that would exclude Tariq as his manager and inevitably leave him with no financial gain from the project, is what motivates Ethan’s bravado for the grand finale of the third act.
While XOXO might not be seen as “legit” enough by pure ravers like Neil, it is, at the very least one of the most entertaining films to come out about the culture in recent years (apart from We Are Your Friends), and one that comes across as very much a labor of love on Louie’s part. And, if Netflix is open to a movie of this nature, is a full-fledged rave genre far behind?