Though not a holiday movie by any stretch of the imagination, Netflix’s newest family-friendly original Mixtape feels perfectly suited for this time of year. This wholesome tale manages to balance mature concepts with a young, fresh-faced cast without making things too heavy-handed or melodramatic. It’s not based on any YA novel (instead crafted by writer Stacey Menear), but Mixtape holds many hallmarks of what one could expect from a coming-of-age movie, from the all too vital friendships to a rocking soundtrack. Director Valerie Weiss doesn’t quite reinvent the wheel here, but she still finds success. Mixtape feels familiar and new all at once thanks to its earnest story and central messages of family and grief that will touch viewers of all ages.
As the new millennium dawns and radio personalities debate the validity of Y2K, precocious 12-year-old Beverly Moody (Gemma Brooke Allen) makes a discovery in the midst of cleaning her house: a broken mixtape left behind by her deceased rocker parents. Beverly was orphaned at a young age when her parents died in a car accident, and she’s since been raised by her grandmother Gail (Julie Bowen), who still carries scars from her daughter’s passing. Armed with the list of songs on the mixtape, Beverly sets out to listen to each and every bit of music her parents left behind in the hopes of possibly uncovering a message.
Throughout Mixtape, new friends aid Beverly in her journey to filling in bits of her parents’ past, and it’s those relationships that provide the film with some of its biggest strengths. The throwback soundtrack and solid production elements further bolster Mixtape, but it is the friendships that will resonate the most in place of any major technical aspects. Initially awkward and friendless, Beverly recruits bubbly Ellen (Audrey Hsieh) and surly Nicky (Olga Petsa) to her cause, as well as cynical record store owner Anti (Nick Thune). To Menear’s credit as a screenwriter, each of the characters in Mixtape come fully formed and none of them fall into expected stereotypes. The way certain relationships progress — such as, say, Beverly and Anti’s bond — is fairly predictable, but that is to be expected from a film like this one.
That’s one of the comforts of Mixtape: it’s easy to tell right from the outset what kind of movie it’s going to be. For some, Beverly’s bright-eyed determination will grate, but Weiss manages to keep the entire affair from falling completely into corny territory. She (along with Menear’s script) doesn’t shy away from the complex feelings that surround grief or the circumstances that arise from teen pregnancy (as Bev’s parents had her young), instead allowing Mixtape to bask in quieter moments that consider these concepts. Despite some of the heavy emotions that surround the plot, the movie never sinks into anything resembling true sorrow; since this was certainly made with young viewers in mind, Weiss is careful to avoid keeping things sad for long. That’s not to say Mixtape doesn’t get emotional. In fact, viewers might find themselves choked up during a key scene between Beverly and Gail near the end.
A movie like Mixtape depends greatly on the strength of its lead actress, so it’s a relief to say that Allen is up to the task of shouldering this project. The rising actress perfectly conveys Beverly’s burning desire to know more about her parents, as well as her deeper insecurity over whether they would like her had they survived. The increasingly outlandish things Beverly does to hear each mixtape song could get annoying, but Allen keeps the audience firmly on the middle schooler’s side. Modern Family fans won’t be surprised to learn Bowen is another standout in the Mixtape cast; though Gail isn’t as funny a role, Bowen does such a great job at portraying her grief that it’s nearly palpable without being too over the top. Special credit should also be given to Thune, who nails Anti’s sarcastic nature and hidden depths.
There are viewers who will likely balk at Mixtape’s borderline saccharine worldview, but there’s something to be said about good old-fashioned comfort films. Though targeted towards families and younger viewers, this isn’t a movie that treats its audience like juveniles. There are elements for people of all ages to enjoy, like the jam-filled soundtrack and the sweetly depicted relationships. So for anyone looking for a heartwarming movie this holiday season that doesn’t actually involve any Christmas trees or menorahs, Mixtape just might fit the bill.