In a time of great concert deficit, relief comes in the form of the music-forward “Teenage Badass,” released digitally Sept. 18. The film, which centers on Brad (Mcabe Gregg) as he navigates the rip-roaring excitement of a band on the brink of its big break, is most digestible as a 90-minute music video. Set in 2006, “Teenage Badass” embraces what feels like a bygone era — one of walkmans, Jimmy Eat World and a blatant romanticization of one of music’s most uninteresting eras.
“Teenage Badass” is a film about music; there’s no denying that. And if we’re talking about putting one’s best foot forward, songwriter and star Evan Ultra, who plays frontman Kirk Stylo, certainly did. The fictional band Stylo and the Murder Dogs offers a crackling saccharine sweetness appropriate of psychedelic pop rock. The film’s soundtrack alone makes prattling through its mostly tedious plot more than bearable — it makes it somewhat of a treat. Ultra is almost too convincing as the dazed and narcotized Kirk — Dillon Lane and Mcabe Gregg are equally as entertaining as bandmates Al and Brad, respectively. The trio manage to tread the film’s dismal attempt at a story with practiced ease, sidestepping the narrative traps set by the writing. At least, most of the time.
One glaring misstep? Ask Brandon White.
White’s character is introduced halfway through the film when the initial keyboardist, Mark Steib, is replaced by a career keyboardist, Horus Slays. White brings an effortless cool to the character, and that is exactly what makes his character so disappointing. White is so transparently the token character of color among the film’s deluge of white actors — it’d be funny if it weren’t so utterly annoying. And what’s more, it’s a testament to how little this film is appealing to anyone who isn’t a middle-aged white man.
“Teenage Badass” is a portrait of what it looks like to plummet from a high-rise balancing act. Besides its inability to imagine a world that isn’t a pasty winter wonderland, the film at every turn sidelines any discernible plot in favor of prioritizing its dry as the Sahara mission statement: to make a movie about a band. It’s a story told often and often told better: one of an egomaniacal frontman, an innocent, green as fresh cut grass protagonist — all rounded out by the motley crew of zany side characters that add aesthetic but no substance. The film is what “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” would look like if a 14-year-old boy watched it once, described what happens and then had a studio turn it into a feature film.
Still, where there is little plot, the film excels in the natural chemistry between its cast. Gregg and Julie Ann Emery play the distant mother and son dynamic well, often trying and failing to bridge the generational gap. One major failure of the film is not wringing Emery for all she’s worth; her performance is one of the most underrated in the film. Madelyn Deutch’s character Candice is another showstopper, but like Emery, she’s similarly let down. Despite a strong performance, the film turns her into a two-bit Yoko Ono, reducing her very real concerns about Kirk’s sobriety to the petty cries of an adultress. The film needed a villain, and it was almost as if Candice just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a film so evidently for men, it’s unsurprising that it lets its female cast down.
All in all, the film sees a formidable treasure in the Murder Dog’s sound. And with both of the fictional band’s singles currently available for streaming, it’s clear the film is aware of this fact. Which means, luckily for listeners, it’s just as easy — and perhaps just as enjoyable — to relish in their music as it is to avoid this film.