Though the prospect of a musical centred around emo music and culture in 2017 feels a little dated, director Neil Triffett’s Australian high school comedy EMO the Musical makes up for that with catchy, tongue-in-cheek tunes and an offbeat sense of humour. The asymmetrical haircuts, liberal application of guyliner and angsty pop punk tracks are more nostalgic than zeitgeisty now, but Triffett uses the scene as an effective stand in for any high school clique and pits the emo kids against a group of God-fearing Christians.
Benson Jack Anthony stars as Ethan, a skinny kid with a shock of jet black hair, thick black eye-liner and, as his opening number confesses, scars on his wrists drawn in eye shadow. He’s the only emo at his uptight private school so, of course, he’s the victim of bullies and eventually tries to hang himself from a tree outside of the school. This gets him an expulsion, a spell in counselling and a transfer to Seymour High, a public high school with its very own emo band: Worst Day Ever.
With a battle of the bands coming up, they’re looking for new members and they see Ethan’s suicidal backstory as something that can lend them some emo cred. However, the band have to contend with a group of Christian kids, including Trinity (Jordan Hare), who takes a shine to Ethan and their budding romance threatens their status within their respective groups. It’s just like Romeo and Juliet, if Romeo listened to My Chemical Romance and Juliet tried to baptise someone in a paddling pool.
Ethan and Trinity’s forbidden romance hits at the film’s central themes of loneliness, acceptance and learning to be who you want to be. These kids are all at a point in life where they’re desperate to just fit in and latch onto something – anything – that will help them do that, whether it be a rock band or a prayer group. Everyone on both sides of the emos vs Christians divide the film sets up are hiding something about themselves, whether it be an emo who just wants to play basketball or a Christian boy who’s hopelessly in love with another man. Triffett has an obvious affection for these characters and even as his script pokes fun at their fashion sense or teenage hyperbole, he never mocks the characters themselves; their hopes, dreams, fears and emotions always ring true.
As for the music, purists will no doubt point out that none of it is actually emo – playing more like the cast of Glee covering early Fall Out Boy – but the songs, written by Triffett, Charlotte Nicdao and Craig Pilkington are sharp, catchy and packed with witty lyrics. Every one of Worst Day Ever’s songs go all in on the heartbroken, pseudo-suicidal, life-or-death emotion that came to define the music of that era and pushes it to the point of parody. There are no showstoppers but the standout number comes from Trinity however as she shocks her religious support group with a song asserting that Jesus would’ve been an emo. That song sums up the playful, satirical tone of the humour, with lines like “no girls would have dated him/ ’cause who wants their boyfriend crucified…at the formal?”
Whether you’re a reformed emo kid or someone who doesn’t understand what those guys in skinny jeans and eyeliner are whining about, EMO the Musical works on its own terms as a witty teen comedy with real heart beneath its angsty one liners and grubby band tees.