This Jem is less a movie than an open-source brand launch: If you’re young and down or bullied or disconnected from the life around you, you could always slap on some glitter and film yourself singing as the cartoon-rock queen Jem. Aubrey Peeples, playing the singer, even gets a sort of Tom Joad speech in the final minutes, explaining that Jem is all of us and any of us, that she’ll be there when we need her. That’s heartening — here’s hoping that, if fans claim the songs and the identity, the copyright holders remain supportive. And the filmmakers have done the Jem-faithful the strangest of favors: The production values here are pretty much what yours would be if you re-shot the movie yourself on some iPhones.
All that adventure/excitement and fashion/fame promised in the Eighties cartoon show’s theme song proves beyond the budgetary scope of this iteration, which is mostly a series of fumbled close-ups of the star and her band/sisters, as a wicked manager (Juliette Lewis) endeavors to make them over and fully monetize Jem’s talent.
That manager’s goal: lift Jem from internet-famous to famous-famous, a distinction that the movie highlights in its on-the-cheap way. You know how in most rise-of-a-pop-star films you get a flashbulb montage: packed venues, screaming fans, red-carpet life? Here there’s a much more cost-effective sequence of close-ups of computer screens, where numbers of shares and likes keep booming. It’s witty and even thoughtful, especially when a video of Jem becomes a viral sensation before that manager shows up: Here she is, the talk of the internet, a talent kids are weeping over, but she’s still broke and sleepy and dressed for the suburbs.
The movie’s poky and confused, never clearly setting up its conflicts and blowing far too much of its running time on a National Treasure clue-hunt for messages Jem’s father programmed into a sassy dancing robot. We’re supposed to consider it a travesty when the manager tries to peel Jem off from her sisters/bandmates and fashion her into a solo star, but Jem never bothers to show us why those (eventual) Holograms matter — we never see rehearsals, or who writes the songs, or anything of their creative process. The songs, sung well by Peeples, are rousing, but not so much that the world’s immediate embrace of Jem makes clear sense. Director Jon M. Chu splices in YouTube clips of real-life fans gushing about how Hasbro’s Jem character changed their lives, and that passion is queasily incongruent with the earnest, low-key young star of the movie. He also cuts, at times, to unrelated videos of YouTubers performing interesting feats of percussion; the score smartly incorporates these beats, but some older viewers may be left wondering, “Hey, are those guys banging on tubs of kitty-litter in the next room? Are they part of the story?”
As on Nashville, where her singing is a highlight, Peeples plays a smart but gloomy cookie wary of the press and the public but eager to be an artist. Here, though, her everyday character gets to escape into the fantasy of Jem, even if she’s reluctant to do so: The film’s best moment is a barely lit examination of her touching up a band of red makeup smeared over her eyes. She’s brooding, confused, stuck somewhere between real person and Gaga. Too bad, though, that the conflicts this soulful performer is asked to embody are otherwise so generic.
Chu and screenwriter Ryan Landels’s take on fame is more fascinating than most of the film’s drab, slow drama. Jem mixes the anti-sellout fears of earlier generations with the everybody-is-a-star ethos of the YouTube era. The script has enough sharp edges to keep getting your hopes up that everything might come together — might truly become outrageous.
One highlight: this exchange as Jem and company watch her first video storm the internet. “They love her,” one gushes, staring at a laptop. Then, only slightly surprised: “Except that guy. And that one.” Lewis is terrifically funny as a callow, shallow biz-type, but it’s the truth of that scene — and the prevalence of such online hate — that offers reason to hope that Jem hits enough to be improved upon in a sequel. Yes, its message — “Be yourself by being Jem!” — is kind of nuts, but, for real, anything that helps these kids find themselves makes this world better.
A warning to superfans of the cartoon: This is another of those reboots where the premise of the original isn’t really established until the very last scene. Also, all the supernatural weirdness is gone.
Jem and the Holograms
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Opens October 23