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Metal Lords

Bless my friends and connections in the Portland film and theatre community for alerting me to another movie shot in my fair city. Alas, most of my friends and acquaintances in Metal Lords are relegated to bit parts or uncredited background appearances. To my surprise, this is the first time in years I’ve seen a film or TV show that was shot in Portland and had nothing to do with Dana Millican. The film’s loss, really.

It bugs me that the film is supposedly set in the North Portland neighborhood of St. John’s, but most of the action is set in a fictionalized version of Parkrose High School in the Parkrose neighborhood, 15 miles away. The white characters, bougie environment, and overall nature of the story seem better suited to the tony Parkrose neighborhood than the more historic St. John’s.

In point of fact, it’s glaringly obvious when the film cuts between the two locales. I can only assume that the filmmakers wouldn’t get their tax incentives unless they filmed a Portland cultural landmark, thus the production had to go so far out of its way just to get a shot of the St. John’s Bridge. Because of all the local bridges and landmarks that anyone could’ve put in their movie, of course they went with the fucking St. John’s Bridge just like everyone always does. That said, I do appreciate that the venerable Revolution Hall was made the setting for the climax — at least the filmmakers didn’t try to shoot a Battle of the Bands at the Keller or some shit. Or maybe they could’ve gone with Dante’s, that would’ve been awesomely hilarious.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Now that I’ve vented my hometown pride, let’s move on to the film itself, shall we?

Metal Lords comes to us from writer D.B. Weiss, also a producer alongside his fellow “Game of Thrones” showrunner, David Benioff. In the director’s chair is Peter Sollett, still best known for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist all the way back in 2008. Jaeden Martell headlines the cast, alongside up-and-comer Isis Hainsworth and newcomer Adrian Greensmith. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ramin Djawadi — one of my favorite composers in the business since his criminally underrated work in Iron Man — working alongside Executive Music Producer Tom Morello, late of Rage Against the Machine.

(Side note: Apparently, Weiss and Morello met each other because their kids go to the same school. Funny ol’ world, isn’t it?)

Our de facto protagonist is Kevin (played by Martell), the kind of introverted wallflower who picks up marching band not because he has any kind of musical talent or passion, but because it was an easy way to get out of P.E. His longtime best friend is Hunter (Greensmith), a halfway-decent guitarist with a passion for heavy metal. More importantly, Hunter’s incompetent father (Dr. Sylvester, played by Brett Gelman) is a well-meaning asshole and Hunter’s mom left the both of them some time ago. So really, Hunter is more interested in heavy metal as a way of lashing out against his parents, his teachers, the world, and so on.

Anyway, Hunter wants to put together a post-doom metal band called “Skullfucker”. He recruits Kevin, who only plays snare drum in marching band (under protest, at that) and doesn’t know the first thing about playing a full kit. No worries, that’s nothing a curated heavy metal playlist and a training montage can’t fix, so he’s up and playing like a professional in no time. Cue the eye roll.

Alas, the band isn’t really complete until they get a bass player. Enter Emily (Hainsworth), another social misfit who went into marching band to get out of P.E. Though Emily turns out to be a godawful clarinet player, she’s a surprisingly gifted cellist. Moreover, Emily has some unspecified mental disorders that leave her hooked on prescription drugs and dealing with a lot of pent-up anger for thinking and feeling so different from everyone else.

Emily’s got the musical talent and the overwhelming rage against an uncaring world, so Kevin thinks she’d be a natural fit for the band. But Hunter repeatedly vetoes the decision out of hand, saying that a cello-playing girl wouldn’t really fit the image he’s going for. There’s some probable misogyny in that decision, and the other characters call him out on that, but this is more likely just another demonstration of Hunter’s compulsive need to exert control by alienating everyone around him. We’ll come back to that.

In any case, Kevin and Emily strike up a romance in spite of Hunter. And it’s worth stressing emphatically that these kids fuck. While nothing explicit is shown, the film makes it abundantly clear from the open that this is an actively sexual relationship between two kids who are helping each other to figure themselves out. Even when the characters themselves are awkward and embarrassed and shy about everything they’re saying and doing, the filmmakers pull no punches. They make every effort to show what a respectful, considerate, thoughtful first sexual encounter could look like between two teenagers who go into this with barely any idea what they’re doing and come away no better or worse, but slightly more experienced.

It’s honest and authentic, yet tasteful and endearing in a way that could speak to any pubescent teens in the audience without making adults feel squicky or disgusted. This is an important topic for young people to discuss and learn about, and I applaud the filmmakers for handling it so deftly.

(Side note: This is an R-rated movie? Seriously? Gods above, the MPAA is an outdated joke.)

But of course the most important relationship of the movie is the Kevin/Hunter friendship. On the one hand, Kevin is a nonentity who badly needs someone like Hunter to get him out of his comfort zone and experience any kind of emotional growth or life experiences. Hell, it’s entirely possible that Kevin wouldn’t have any friends at all if it wasn’t for Hunter. But on the other hand, Hunter is an angry young man whose every action is motivated exclusively by hate. He’s destructive to a fault, he still young enough to think that he’s invulnerable and immune from any consequences, and his father is a filthy rich plastic surgeon with an American Express card for the stealing.

Put simply, Hunter is a time bomb. And it’s a near-certainty that when he finally goes down, he’ll take Kevin with him unless Kevin bails out first. But then, so much of Kevin’s identity is built on what he learned and gained from Hunter, and all of Hunter’s big ambitions for a metal band aren’t worth squat without the only musician who can stand to be around him. So really, what are Kevin and Hunter without each other?

This is pretty standard material for a coming-of-age picture. Luckily, the filmmakers are remarkably savvy about high school tropes and how to subvert them for a modern audience. My favorite example concerns Robbie, played by Christopher Lopes — an actor who really does have Down Syndrome. The key here is that Robbie is never treated as a punchline and nobody ever talks to him like he’s stupid. By all appearances, Robbie is this really cool guy that everyone likes to be around because he listens to everyone’s problems and he always knows what to say to make anyone feel better. He’s treated like everyone’s favorite neighbor, and I admire that.

Another example concerns Kendall (Analesa Fisher, a local Portland actor), a pretty young blonde who’s established as a potential love interest for Kevin. And in her very first dialogue exchange, Kendall talks about her self-esteem issues and how she isn’t nearly as pretty as some other girl at the same party. A little ham-fisted, sure, but I can’t recall the last time I ever saw a teen movie try that with this particular archetype, certainly not at the outset.

Even with our standard bully character (Skip, played by Phelan Davis), there’s a bit of leeway. He’s a jerk, sure, but there are some mitigating circumstances here. Not that it excuses his behavior, but Skip seems far more aggressive when alcohol and/or loud music is involved, and that’s at least somewhat understandable. More importantly, it doesn’t help that Skip makes the mistake of antagonizing Hunter, thus giving our angry young white boy someone to take his misplaced anger out on. Again, I’m not saying it excuses any of Skip’s behavior, but Hunter kinda deserves what he gets for poking the bear.

That said, while I respect a film that directs so many tropes away from their cliched and outdated endpoints, it sucks that the film doesn’t really know what else to do with them. Much as I love Robbie and the film’s even-handed portrayal of Down Syndrome, it would’ve done a lot more good if Robbie had been given something to do or shown any kind of personality aside from just being the resident Down Syndrome Kid. Kendall had a lot of potential, but in the final analysis, she could’ve been cut from the film entirely without much of anything lost. Skip is more or less a plot device and not a particularly effective one at that.

But the most baffling example is easily Dean Swanson, played by Sufe Bradshaw. She’s the Dean of Students, making her the embodiment of authority in this high school coming-of-age drama. All well and good. Dean Swanson is also responsible for organizing the local Battle of the Bands, which is a bit of an odd coincidence, but we’ll roll with it. Most importantly, the Dean is a perpetually uptight woman who insists that all the acts at the Battle of the Bands must be “appropriate”. This puts her on a direct collision course with the kids who call themselves “Skullfucker” and set out with the express purpose of railing against the world.

That clash never comes. It’s some tiny little disagreement that’s settled within two minutes, and that’s it. Come to think of it, this is emblematic of a huge recurring problem I kept having with the film.

For comparison, consider The Kings of Summer, another film in which a teenage boy is angry with his jackass father and his absent mother, so he takes his best friend so they can work on a project as a “fuck you” to the rest of the world. The key difference here is that the project is a cabin in the middle of the woods, where it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong and one of these delusional teenagers ends up seriously hurt. Thus when our protagonist inevitably drives his friends away, he’s increasing his chance of dying alone in the woods without anyone to help him. So our protagonist and his father need to swallow their pride and bury their grievances because there’s no chance our protagonist will come safely home until that happens.

Another, better-known point of comparison is School of Rock, in which a crew of aspiring young musicians put together a band to compete in a local Battle of the Bands. The difference there is that Jack Black’s character has to prove he’s not an abject failure at everything, the students need to prove that they’re capable of thinking and acting independently from their overbearing parents, and all of them need to prove that they’re capable of building something cool and pure and awesome in spite of all the authority figures trying to keep them down. Unless they make it to this specific Battle of the Bands, they don’t have that proof and all the themes of the movie fall apart.

Compare all of that to this movie, in which Hunter is hell-bent on competing in this upcoming Battle of the Bands. That’s the climax of the film, the linchpin of the entire plot. Why is Hunter so dead-set on this, and what would Kevin and/or Emily get out of this? What happens if they lose, what happens if they win, and what happens if they don’t get in at all? I’ve been ruminating on those questions for a while now, and I can’t come up with an answer that makes any sense.

The obvious answer is that there’s some other band that needs to be taken down because they’re assholes and we can get the satisfaction of watching them lose. Indeed, we do have “Mollycoddle”, a band full of mediocre musicians who get by because the lead singer (Clay, played by pop singer Noah Urrea) is attractive and the band plays watered-down covers of popular songs. Trouble is, Clay and his bandmates are repeatedly shown to be decent and upstanding guys who show zero interest in any kind of beef, no matter how badly Hunter tries to pick a fight with them. Again, it’s a trope subversion that might’ve been thoughtful and intelligent, except the filmmakers didn’t know what to do with it.

Hunter harps on about how winning Battle of the Bands means Skullfucker will get gigs and will in turn lead to getting signed. It doesn’t exactly take a genius to know that’s not a likely career path. More importantly, while Hunter wants heavy metal superstardom, he needs to resolve his family issues so he can stop pushing everyone away. If Hunter wins at Battle of the Bands, how will that bring him closer to his dad? Problem is, it won’t. And there’s no effort at making it even halfway plausible.

Yes, there’s the recurring issue of the Hunter/Kevin friendship and how the two of them need to make peace with each other. Their ability to cooperate and tolerate each other is of course directly tied to Battle of the Bands. But here we run into another problem because there’s no stated reason why they couldn’t simply practice for another year. If anything, it might’ve made for a stronger movie if we cut to an epilogue a year later to see that they’re still together, still jamming, kicking ass like they never could at this earlier point in their lives.

Come to think of it, the movie has a serious problem with consequences. Our characters are often threatened with suspension, but that doesn’t count for much when our main characters seem to have free run of the school and no obligations for classwork anyway. Hunter goes through the whole movie abusing his father, and his dad’s chosen response is an objectively awful idea that didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of actually working. Thus the movie seems genuinely confused about how much trouble Hunter deserves to be in when the scheme inevitably falls apart.

The plot has some unavoidably huge problems, but there’s still a lot to like about the film. Chiefly, there’s the matter of our leading cast. Jaeden Martell is already a seasoned industry veteran at so young an age, Isis Hainsworth plays a delightfully endearing female lead, Adrian Greensmith turns in a barn-burning debut performance, and the chemistry between all three of them is perfectly on point at all times.

Even the supporting cast is loaded with such wonderful surprises as the aforementioned Lopes, Davis, and Fisher. We’ve also got Joe Manganiello, stealing the show with a brief third-act supporting turn I don’t dare spoil anything about here. And let’s not forget Scott Ian, Kirk Hammett, Rob Halford, and of course the Executive Music Producer himself, Tom Morello. All of these heavy metal legends get cameos appearing as themselves in a show-stopping scene. Again, no way am I spoiling anything beyond that.

Speaking of which, the music is another significant reason why this movie works as well as it does. Ramin Djawadi really is one of the most underappreciated composers in the business, and he put together one hell of a heavy metal playlist with Morello. The needle-drops are fantastic overall, though it must be noted that the Black Sabbath classic “War Pigs” is a staple. Oh, and that “Machinery of Torment” single Morello put together for the movie is a fantastic centerpiece for the climax.

Metal Lords is frustrating in that it had everything it needed except stakes. The characters are all delightful, the cast is rock-solid, the music is uniformly kickass, the themes are all tried-and-true classics, and all of it would’ve made something great if only there was a sufficient plot to give everything the requisite heft. It’s a damn shame there couldn’t have been another draft or two, because the screenplay is only undercooked by maybe five or ten minutes.

Then again, because streaming exclusives are less expensive, more flexible, and easier to access than any film at the multiplex, I tend to hold Netflix originals to a lower standard. With that important caveat, this is a fun and heartfelt coming-of-age dramedy that I’m happy to recommend.

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