Jerrica Benton, the offstage persona of accidental pop star Jem, sits underneath the Santa Monica Pier surrounded by her sisters and cuddled up next to her budding love interest, Rio. Jerrica and her bandmates are just another series of phonies trying to make it big with the help of his mother, mega-producer Erica Raymond, he claims. Jerrica's immediate rebuttal? A wailing vocal trill that she thrusts out of her teenage mouth with ease and without thinking.
This is annoying because it's cliche, albeit not the first or the last in a film chock full of them. But what makes this impromptu singalong truly awful is when Rio, the world's oldest and most important college intern who is tasked to watch over these teenage pop divas and eventually earn Jerrica's affection, joins in on the song, perfectly in harmony.
It's a scene that serves as emblematic of everything wrong with the movie. Jem and the Holograms is a film dedicated to flawless, entitled teenagers who parade around for an hour and a half in perfect style as they claim to be searching for their identities. If you are a fan of the cartoon of the same name, this will unnerve you, for this film resembles the tacky and nostalgic original in name only.
Everything increases in awfulness following this mid-movie musical interlude. That's not to suggest that things had been smooth sailing up until that point: I had audibly groaned at several moments leading up to this one, as well. Much of my frustration stemmed from the fact that there was almost nothing present in the film that warranted the usage of the iconic toy and TV franchise. I didn't grow up as a major fan of Jem and her pals — I missed that boat by a couple of years — but I certainly am familiar with their story and unforgettable aesthetic.
Jem and the Holograms falls dramatically short of the tackiness that remains appealing about the cartoon
That is one of the most glaring omissions in this revamp for a modern audience. The film starts out with a lo-fi music video of the girls dicking around in their backyard, playing implausibly tuneful jams of their own creation. Each of them sports unnaturally colored hair, with Jem's gigantic pink cut up front. When this ends, however, it is quickly revealed that the girls are wearing wigs, that their makeup is just for show, and that they are simply very, very normal girls living in dire straits with their down-on-her-luck aunt, played by an unrecognizable Molly Ringwald.
The original Jem notably dealt with split identities of her own, with the crux of that series being her struggle to reconcile her secret identity with her true nature. But this film fails to make use of that conceit. At first, Jerrica is introduced as shy and seemingly unable to perform outside of the guise of her pink-haired persona. This changes quickly — too quickly — when her sister, Kimber, uploads a video Jerrica took of herself playing a bland, sad-girl acoustic tune to YouTube, where it soon takes off. After achieving a "massive 36,000 hits" (seriously), the girls are driven out to Los Angeles at the behest of Erica Raymond, who promises to make Jerrica (and begrudgingly, her family of bandmates) into the pop star she is meant to be.
Jerrica accepts her Jem transformation with almost no thought at all. She and her sisters relish their requisite pop star makeovers, despite claiming to want to stick to their true selves. In fact, this whole stance of authenticity which they wear so proudly off-stage is nixed as soon as they get their hair done and head off to perform in full makeup and unfortunate 80s garb. That's not to say that true self-expression should be limited to a natural look, but at no point is it clear that these are the styles the girls chose for themselves.
The concert performances, in which the girls time and again show off their impossible musical talent — even at their very first show, where the power goes out because of course it does and they wing it acoustically to great fanfare — are the film's closest attempt at embracing its source material, but it falls dramatically short of the tackiness that remains appealing about the cartoon.
The other major element borrowed from the original series is Synergy, although not in any recognizable way. What was once the computer system responsible for transforming Jerrica into Jem is now a tiny knockoff version of Star Wars: The Force Awakens' BB-8 droid. Synergy, unlike BB-8, is not cute. Synergy, unlike BB-8, is worthless. In a scene too emotionally manipulative to be affecting — and, again, too similar to Star Wars to be ignored — the robot uses its holographic capabilities to play a video of Jem's deceased father.
For a film with the word "hologram" in the title, the film is exceptionally light on fantasy. The inclusion of this sentient toy moves something that is so self-serious to the point of infuriation onto another level of ridiculousness. Up until the introduction of the Synergy-led fetch quest —a nagging C-plot at best — Jem and the Holograms is painfully grounded in its own reality.
It's embarrassing, it's shallow, and it's remarkably unfun.
The girls walk around in garish outfits in earnest and hold their "craft" — which we almost never see them working on, despite their unbelievable skill — with utmost importance. They consistently succeed on every level, triumphing over every minor obstacle laid before them and achieving stardom they weren't even sure they wanted with relative ease and no reflection. It's embarrassing, it's shallow, and it's remarkably unfun.
Despite the scope and magnitude of the film's abysmal quality, it managed to have its share of genuinely entertaining moments. It was never boring to watch, except for the borderline-disgusting flirtations between Jerrica and Rio, who, to reiterate, looks to be about 30 to Jerrica's realistic 16. The focus on family is touching at times, perhaps because the sisters were the only characters that resonated with me, but the film also readily pushed them aside in favor of furthering the annoying teenage romance dynamic.
More successful were Jerrica's foster sisters Shana and Aja. These girls manage to get a decent portion of screentime and are pure comic relief, much needed in a film that takes itself so seriously. I also smiled at the celebrity cameos, which were surprising if not funny.
If you want to watch teens flaunt their individuality and subsequent superiority, check out Tumblr
Scooter Braun — manager of such well-adjusted child stars as Justin Bieber — served as executive producer on the film and is surely the one to thank for the big names making brief appearances. He also arranged a not-unlistenable soundtrack for the film, both in terms of licensed music and the original songs written for Jem and her band.
The irony there, though, is that Jerrica Benton's entire platform is that she represents the sole authentic voice in music; Jem and the Holograms will change the industry through sheer force of talent and sincerity. But Scooter Braun and the music producers on the film make sure that the work of the Holograms could easily fit in with today's pop scene, creating overproduced bonafide hits that sound like every Top 40 track.
Therein lies my biggest issue with this film: It preaches an important maxim — love yourself for who you are — and then immediately contradicts it by masking its characters and everything about them in artifice without artistry. Jem and the Holograms is the millennial embodiment of style over substance, from head to toe.
If you want to watch teens flaunt their individuality and subsequent superiority, I recommend you check out Tumblr. Or better yet, Vine: Those videos are shorter, and a whole lot more entertaining than Jem and the Holograms.