Jem is contagious! Truly truly truly outrageous! But who exactly has she been dragged into 2015 for? That’s a question director John M. Chu (his resumé includes two Step Up films) doesn’t really answer in his updated, already much-maligned take on the cult ’80s cartoon.
In this version, Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples, probably best known for her arc on Nashville) is a modern-day girl living with three sisters (two of them adopted) and her aunt (an underused Molly Ringwald) in a comfortable but run-down house in the Valley. Jerrica’s got a special gift, you see, but she’s shy about using it: Even though she loves to sing the songs she’s written late at night in her room, she won’t even think about putting them online. So her wily baby sister does it for her under the Jem pseudonym she’s created—and faster than you can say Snapchat or Boomerang or whatever the kids are into these days, her strummy little homemade ballad has made her a bona fide, mystery-shrouded sensation.
That’s when Starlight Enterprises CEO Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) comes calling, sweeping all four girls away to her L.A. lair to mold them into superstars. We know she’s nefarious from the start—but she’s also, against all biological probability, the mother of Jem’s requisite romantic interest (28-year-old Ryan Guzman, a.k.a. the guy who loved J.Lo’s cookies in The Boy Next Door).
Further plot complications come from Synergy, a cute little robot who whirs like a highly evolved Roomba and leads the girls on an elaborate scavenger-hunt-style chase designed by Jem’s father for unknown reasons before he died. And all of this is interspersed with musical performances—the later songs are actually much better than the one that supposedly made Jem internet-famous—earnest lessons on honesty and friendship, and sometimes-jarring clips of real kids displaying their talents on YouTube. In that respect, Chu is certainly on the bleeding edge of contemporary filmmaking; by embracing an uber-democratic Gen-Z-eye view of cinema, one where everyone’s a star, he may literally be showing us the future. (Or maybe he’s just bolstering his movie’s microbudget with a lot of low-res video. It’s hard to tell.)
Regardless, there probably isn’t a lot here for the greying Gen Xers who grew up with the cartoon Jem in their living rooms, unless they have tween daughters they really want to share this experience with. They’re safe to leave the kids on their own, though, if they want to save two hours and $12: As silly and sometimes nonsensical as it is, the movie is surprisingly sweet and well-intentioned. The underlying message of sisterhood and self-empowerment is strong, and the film’s heart really is made of gold, or at least discount sparkles. Separated from its source material—and the unfair expectations of original Holograms loyalists (nostalgia: it’s a hell of a drug) —Jem is probably much better for not being outrageous. There’s enough of that on Boomerang already. C+