Nothing abhors a vacuum more than a person trying to determine who they are, and who they will be as a result, and it’s this quest for getting to the heart of self that powers the affecting momentum of Mixtape, a film that also digs deep into the well of ’90s nostalgia for its sense of time and place, and ultimately, personhood.
Beverly Moody (Gemma Brooke Allen) is a 12-year-old orphaned girl living with her grandmother Gail (Julie Bowen) in Spokane, Washington state, in the closing months of 1999 when the world is convinced that a digital apocalypse is nigh, the result of the Y2K bug which it is feared will drag us back to the Stone Age as computer-driven systems shut down the world over.
In-between working multiple shifts as a USPS mail carrier to get by, Gail is prepping the basement as a shelter for the moment when society breaks down, and tasks Beverly with sorting through a stack of boxes as part of cleaning things up in readiness.
A good-natured kid with high grades and a sunny disposition, Beverly is, as anyone might be, curious about who her parents were, both killed in a car crash that claimed the lives of teen parents who were thrilled to be shepherding a new life through the world.
In one of the boxes, unknown to Gail, is a mixtape on which her mum, Gail’s daughter, and dad, have assembled a series of songs by bands like The Kinks, the Blue Hearts, the Stooges, and The Quick which Beverly becomes convinced are there to to convey a message to their daughter about who they are and hence who she is, something that feels not as clearcut as it once was.
The discovery of the titular tape sets in train a series of transformative events which sees Beverly meet and befriend Ellen (Audrey Hsieh) the neighbouring girl across the street, and Nicky (Olga Petsa), a publicly-disaffected rock band T-shirt-wearing girl from school who turns out to be just as in need of a friend as anyone, and to wander into the record store of Anti (Nick Thune), a one-time denizen of the Spokane rock scene who is key, so Beverly believes, to tracking down all the songs when the tape becomes hopelessly mangled in her Walkman.
While Beverly is invested completely and wholly in her quest, which assumes all-consuming importance for the young girl whose world is circumscribed by the grief of her grandmother, who though a loving if unadventurous parent, finds it too painful to talk about the death of her much-loved daughter, Anti is reluctant to get involved at first and Nicky initially thinks Beverly is too weird to be around, leaving much of the leg work to Beverly and Ellen, who is a whiz at internet touchstones of the era, Napster and Ask Jeeves.
Mixtape is, as you might guess, a musical time tunnel trip back to an age when mobile phones were scarce and the internet was only just beginning to reveal its treasure trove of possibilities, but it is far more than that, touching in some deeply poignant ways on the nature of grief and how it manifests and affects different people in entirely different ways.
Gail, who thank the screenplays gods, isn’t angry at her rebellious daughter nor a grumpy disaffected grandparent out to make her granddaughter’s life Dickensianly difficult by subsuming her in loss and pain not her own – Mixtape, while fairly standard is many ways, avoids going for the obvious tropes (no Footloose-level rock aversion here) which gives it a vivacity it might otherwise have lacked – has kept all of her daughter Kim’s stuff although she has never shared these with her granddaughter, a journey still too painful too undertake a decade after the car crash.
Herself a teen mother like her daughter, who was only sixteen when she had Beverly, Gail is convinced that by letting her free-spirited, musically talented daughter follow her dreams and express herself as authentically as possible, she ultimately spelled her doom.
That’s not even necessarily the case but whoever said grief was logical or made any emotional sense?
It operates in its own strangely distorted but impelling universe, something Beverly knows about too, though her grief is less stark than her grandmother’s and finds expression as an urgent to find out what her mother liked and didn’t like and whether she is like her at all.
Hence, grief finds presence in Mixtape over and over, but ways that speak both of enervating shutdown (Gail) and excitable hope and possibility (Beverly), each person in their own ways trying to find their way to some sort of important existential truth.
Powered by a vivaciously alive performance by Allen, who is the right mix of sassy and loveable, and who’s friendship with Ellen and Nicky, and big brother relationship with Anti, who comes to like her despite prior misgivings, Mixtape is a joyful look to the then-future, one which despite the Y2K looming over it, looks like it might supply all the answers hitherto absent in Beverly’s life.
Musically exuberant and emotionally raw and dynamically optimistic, the film signals a rebirth for just about everyone involved, literally singing the power of connection and belonging as a found family of rock chicks and conservative neighbours, mail carriers and record store owners looking for a way forward come together in a way that warms the heart without once feeling twee or uselessly sentimental.
While the third act is a little too rushed and predictable in certain respects, Mixtape is for the most part a delightful joy, the kind of film that should be watched by anyone mired in the past who wonders if the future holds much promise at all, and who’s ready for a journey of discovery, the kind that might take them to places unexpected and painful but also wonderfully rich and possible, the ones that can ultimately redefine who we are are, and as Beverly hopes, who we might come to be.
Mixtape is currently streaming on Netflix.