It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Jem and the Holograms" is one of the weirdest big screen adaptations of a cheap TV cartoon that I've seen. That's praise. I don't know what I expected going into the movie, but it wasn't a coming-of-age drama that compensates for its near plotlessness with charming and sometimes touching performances, astute observations about how today's youth use technology to deepen their sense of community and self, and some lush handheld camerawork (in CinemaScope ratio!) that occasionally evokes, for real, "The Tree of Life" and "To the Wonder." If Terrence Malick had directed "Josie and the Pussycats," this is what it might have looked like. As written by Ryan Landels and directed by Jon M. Chu (director of two "Step Up" films and "G.I. Joe: Retaliation") the film boasts lots of tight shots of people's faces lost in thought, and several self-contained, intimate musical numbers, including an a capella performance in a nightclub that has just suffered a power outage, and an impromptu song on the sand beneath a pier. In a lot of these scenes, a small robot hangs out and makes adorable noises. More about the robot shortly.
The source material is a Hasbro cartoon that aired on Saturday mornings in the 1980s, about a teenage singer-songwriter named Jerrica Benton who ends up fronting a band that includes her biological sister and two foster sisters. She wows the record-buying public with the help of her late father's projection system, Synergy, which creates a three-dimensional (and seemingly tactile) alternate identity for her. There are rival bands trying to ruin Jerrica's success and get their hands on Synergy, battles over control of the band and its music (mostly involving their malevolent manager, Eric) and other intrigue. If you're thinking about seeing the film you probably already know all this; I include the summary to point up the contrast between what you might reasonably expect the film to deliver—jangly tween pop, contrived "humor," and an overall air of disposability—and what it actually gives you: a movie which, while never caring too much about entertainment basics, has personality, even a vision.
Aubrey Peeples plays Jem, who narrates the movie as an extended flashback. She tells us how she became a near-instantaneous pop sensation after years of grieving her father's death and living with her blood sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott), foster sisters Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko), and everybody's aunt/matriarchial figure, Bailey (Molly Ringwald, who projects such strength and warmth here that you will wish she'd been given more to do).
Kimber uploads Jem's solo acoustic number without her consent to get her to stop hiding her talent and reconnect with the world; the video instantly gets zillions of views and earns them an audition with the rapacious producer Erica Raymond (gender-shifted so that Juliette Lewis can play the role). Erica is a vivid caricature of a hard-driving, insincerely "sincere" record industry manipulator, always lip-smackingly corny (the film is a showbiz melodrama, so that's fine). Her dialogue is better than everyone else's, probably because she was the most fun to write. When Jem says she knows all about her because she read her New York Times profile, Erica replies, "The writer I wasn't sure about, but thank you." She gets one of the year's better screen entrances: a closeup of her spike-heeled shoes disembarking a chauffeured car and click-clacking up the family's front walk, kicking a skateboard aside as she goes. Jem doesn't want to dive into the shark pool that is the entertainment industry, but her family's home is under threat of foreclosure. Erica promises her that she and her sisters will be paid in full once their first tour has concluded. Who wouldn't trust a record executive?