One of the strangest popular sub-genres in the last decade has to be the ‘teen cancer’ genre.
Having risen to prominence in recent years, there appears to be an ongoing interest for learning to experience one’s life when faced with an often-deadly disease. From the good (The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) to the forgettable (Then Came You, Midnight Sun), there are countless films in the last decade that embrace the dark realities of trauma, usually with mixed results. It may seem counterintuitive but these have often become defining films for a generation of teens who are looking to experience life by staring into the face of death. In Hulu’s The Ultimate Playlist of Noise, the outcome lands somewhere in between by offering a relatively charming film that still feels somewhat lacking.
Directed by Bennett Lasseter, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise tells the story of Marcus (Keean Johnson), a high school senior who is so infatuated with music that he creates mixtapes for his friends to meet their various needs. When an unexpected seizure reveals a tumour in his brain, Marcus is stunned to learn that the impending surgery will leave him without hearing. As he grapples with his future, Marcus leaves home on a road trip with the intent of creating the ‘ultimate playlist’ of sounds that he wants to experience while he has still the opportunity to do so.
It’s worth noting that Playlist does have a certain sense of style. With its love of 70s rock (!), cassette tapes (!!) and handwritten text, Marcus is a young man who seems to yearn for tangible experiences. What’s more, the chemistry between Marcus and potential love interest, Wendy (Madeline Brewer) produces enough moments of energy to prevent Playlist from losing its way. Though it’s hardly the best example of modern teen drama, the two leads work well together, creating some fun banter and ‘life moments’ that will resonate with its target audience.
Even so, the film still feels hollow at times. It’s hard to explain but, amidst its exploration of what’s real, the film doesn’t always feel like it’s being honest. Side plots like Wendy’s ex-boyfriend and his parents ‘desperate search’ to find him never seem fully resolved. In addition, it is somewhat troubling at times to see the way in which Playlist wrestles with the prospect of deaf culture. Unlike Darius Marder’s stunning Sound of Metal, Playlist seems to wash over the concept of hearing loss for the most part. While it’s entirely understandable that Marcus would be terrified about losing the sense that he holds most dear (as exemplified by his love of music), it is somewhat surprising how little the film explores the potential of his new life.
But really, this isn’t a film about losing your hearing.
Rather than focus on life after Marcus’ surgery, Playlist leans more heavily into the imminent nature of change. (In this way, Playlist takes more of its cues from The Fault in Our Stars than it does Sound of Metal.) As a coming-of-age drama, the film takes the time to appreciate the smallest things in life that we take for granted. As Marcus embarks on his journey, he discovers an almost lyrical quality to the smallest of sounds and moments, be it a thunderstorm, roaring chainsaw or the moo of a cow. As is often found in these sorts of stories, Marcus’ playlist is really about discovering and experiencing what’s real for himself. While his mother attempts to prepare him for the next phase of his life with ASL classes and church events, Marcus is more concerned with closing the book on his life up to this point. For Marcus, his loss of hearing is an oncoming wall to which he cannot see past. As a result, he needs to believe that he’s actively ‘lived’ before he begins to lean into the future that approaches.
While the film carries charming performances and some moments of joy, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise does play a little too fast and loose with its subject matter to ever feel like it fully rings true. Even so, though it may not be the best entry into this unique sub-genre, there’s enough to enjoy about this Playlist to give it a spin.
The Ultimate Playlist of Noise is available on Hulu on Friday, January 15th, 2021.