The first American fiction feature to embrace the rave scene as more than colorful scenery, Groove is less a work of subcultural ethnography than a curiously dorky act of hipster sincerity, less party movie than cheesy valentine. Writer-director Greg Harrison corrals a bunch of representative types into an all-night San Francisco warehouse rave and allows the Ecstasy-plus-techno headrush to work its magic. The result doesn’t lack for affection or enthusiasm, but Harrison’s attempts to convey rave’s transformative euphoria are too often declared instead of simulated, and every other line of dialogue uttered in this movie begs to be drowned out by the music.
Harrison’s firsthand familiarity with the scene is evident in Groove‘s attention to detail, and it’s a mystery why this insider’s account should assume such a drably familiar shape. The context may be fresh, but Harrison shoehorns into it a moth-eaten American Graffiti model—one busy night of youth-ensemble crisscrossing. In a tip-off that the most responsive audience might be nonravers (club kids are in fact least likely to be transported by these proxy thrills), the nominal protagonist and convenient viewer surrogate is a rave skeptic, David (Hamish Linklater), who’s dragged by his hard-partying younger brother to—what else—the first night of the rest of his life.
A dour aspiring novelist who writes computer manuals for a living, David swallows his first tab of E and promptly runs into a soul mate, Leyla (Lola Glaudini), a seasoned raver who finds David’s initial disorientation and subsequent chemical epiphanies not only endearing but somehow revelatory in terms of her own comfortably numb hedonism. “I’m alive—I haven’t felt that way in a long time,” he gushes. “I just want to commit to something without any fear,” she confesses. Granted, they’re fucked-up, but it’s in moments like this, when Groove prioritizes intimate drama over dancefloor communion, that it runs aground. The other strands of the freewheeling yet plodding narrative are similarly thin: an oily scene-ster comes between David’s brother and his ditzy girlfriend; a kid nearly ODs on GBH; the organizers good-naturedly try to outwit the cops; and in a colossally misguided attempt at a running joke, a disco-napping gay couple oversleep and get lost on their way to the rave (cue plenty of queeny bickering).
Loosely structured around a series of DJ sets, Groove builds to a climactic appearance by mega-DJ John Digweed (playing himself). The Digweed set itself is a blast, and Harrison has fun capturing it, but having finally come close to a visceral evocation of a transcendent rave moment, Harrison buries it under a landslide of mawkishness—he has David and Leyla lock eyes across a crowded floor and, the morning after, engineers a cringe-inducing chat between Digweed and a fanboy DJ (“Can I touch you?”). Worse, the movie hammers home the point made earlier by head promoter Earl (Steve Van Wormer), already painful the first time, that he goes to the trouble of organizing illegal raves all for the sake of “the nod” (acknowledgment from a total stranger), a cornball philosophy that the film unselfconsciously inflates into its own mission statement. Groove lacks the wit of Graffiti, not to mention the quirks and textures that Richard Linklater brought to a similar form in his early films, and there seem to be fewer obvious breakout stars among its ensemble than there were in Graffiti and Dazed and Confused—if anything, the actors (Hamish Linklater, in particular) illustrate with unfortunate clarity the pitfalls of affecting a pharmaceutical high. With its loved-up, it’s-all-good pseudo-spirituality, Groove is even more woefully earnest than its disco ancestors like SNF and Thank God It’s Friday—think of it, for better or worse, as rave’s Godspell, with Digweed as Jesus.