There are several moments when “Mixtape,” a sentimental learn-about-my-parents-through-their-music dramedy, teeters on the edge of tumbling into maudlin.
Every movie with “so cute you want to pinch its cheeks” in its DNA runs that risk.
But then a song comes on, becomes a topic of dissection and discussion, because that’s what the movie’s about, finding a mixtape made by our heroine’s parents. And if you’re of a certain age, or any one of many certain ages, you’re transported back to your memories of that song, or of the songs that meant the same thing to you that it must have meant to those in-love-but-long-dead teens who made it.
It can be Roxy Music’s “More That This,” or The Kinks’ “Better Things,” a snippet of Third Eye Blind.
Because “nostalgia” isn’t just for Baby Boomers. It can transcend age and race and nation of origin.
Gemma Brooke Allen, who played “Young Kate” in the Mary Elizabeth Winstead actioner “Kate,” stars as Bev, a little girl growing up with her hard-working grandma (Julie Bowen) because her mom and dad died over a decade ago.
She’s a largely friendless tween who is barely worth the trouble to pick on at James K. Polk Middle School. That’s how anonymous she is.
She’d love to learn more about her parents, but that’s a touchy subject with grandma. Because her mother had her at 16, and her dad wasn’t much older. Because grandma had her mother in her teens. And the reason she’s taking on extra shifts delivering mail and that they’re eating cheap is because she’s saving up the cash to get Bev into college to break that cycle.
The last thing that kid needs to stumble across in the attic is a mixtape of her parents’ music. It’s the end of 1999, and SOME folks are hoarding food and freaking out over what Y2K might bring. Bev looking for clues in the songs one parent gave to the other when they were falling in love might not be a distraction Bev needs right now.
But when she plays the tape on her mom’s battered Walkman, it hangs, as cassettes used to do. She’s barely dipped into Girls at Our Best performing “Getting Nowhere Fast” when she gets nowhere at all.
Luckily, there’s a hip record store of yore downtown, run by the surly ex-punk Anti (indie comedy mainstay Nick Thune of “Mr. Roosevelt” and “Dave Made a Maze”). He’ll take “Punky Brewster’s”
lunch money. Reluctantly, because Britney boppers are the last thing he needs in his aficionado-oriented shop. And her parents’ playlist?
“Not bad…The Stooges. Otis Spunkmeyer…The Quick.”
Some songs are rare, some might be impossible to source. And she can only afford to buy one at a time. But he shames her to do it right.
A mixtape “is a message from the maker to the listener.” If she wants to figure anything out about said “maker” and “listener,” she’s got to hear the songs — all of them, in order. And Anti’s little retail piece of punkdom is just a starting point.
That’s a very clever conceit to hang your movie on, and I dare say it would play if the kid in question were of any other race and her lost parents into any other genre of music.
Bev hears “Linda Linda” by The Blue Hearts and can’t make out the Japanese lyrics. Maybe the classmate she doesn’t know across the street (Audrey Hseih) can help, if her Tiger Mom will let her out the door.
Too bad Audrey’s Taiwanese. But she’s hip to the tech, and “there’s this new thing…Napster…all the songs are free!” She joins the quest.
At some point, the scowling tween punk Nicky (Olga Petsa) will need to be approached (scary) and consulted. A visit to a punk club is in order.
And along the way, the new friends conspire to convince classmates that the new school mascot should be “The Mullet” — no, not the fish — the wheelchair-bound school bully (Diego Mercado) must be confronted and grandma will relent and let out details like the fact that Kim, Bev’s late mother, “wanted to be a ‘Solid Gold Dancer’ when she grew up.”
Some promising paths are introduced and abandoned. The jokes are of the low-hanging-fruit “What are you looking for?” “Your DeLorean! You can’t just pop back to the ’80s and pick up a tape there!” variety.
But screenwriter Stacey Menear peppers the script with bit players who score points, from Taiwanese friend Ellen’s feral and funny five-year-old brother who can be “dared” into doing most anything to Nicky’s punk-musician sibling, whom she can beat up if he starts something (she’s egged on by their dad) to the one local musician on the tape, still around and still playing, the guy who is the reason the tweens sneak into a punk club. He’s played by Jackson Rathbone to great effect.
The pre-pubescent ages of our heroines — they even banter about the mysteries of “the tampon” — gives the film a refreshing innocence.
Movies like this always represent some sort of validation of the filmmakers’ musical taste, which makes them almost too specific. Will parents who grew up with hip hop enjoy sharing it with their tweens?
But the warmth wins you over, and the players seal the deal with little blasts of sweet mixed with sassy.
If you’ve ever made a “Mixtape,” or ever wondered what they were and why your parents or grandparents obsessed about them, this little low-key gem is a winner.
Cast: Gemma Brooke Allen, Audrey Hseih, Nick Thune, Olga Petsa, Diego Mercado, Jackson Rathbone and Julie Bowen
Credits: Directed by Valerie Weiss, scripted by Stacey Menear. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:33