Bennett Lasseter’s teen romance plays like Sound of Metal for the YA set, but sags under a heaping helping of misconceptions about deafness.
Hulu’s latest release is a heartfelt coming-of-age drama with ambition, setting out to explore a multitude of themes, including loss, acceptance, deafness, and mental illness. The Ultimate Playlist of Noise strives to tackle each subject matter in the space of a hundred minutes, but the absence of pacing and depth makes for a deflating albeit sincere film, which should have had so much more to say.
Directed by Bennett Lasseter, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise follows music fanatic Marcus (Keean Johnson), a high school senior who wears headphones over his earphones (one’s for music, and one’s for ambience). After suffering a seizure during a concert, Marcus finds out that he has to have brain surgery, with the likelihood he’ll lose his hearing as a result. Marcus soon finds the motivation to create the ultimate bucket list of his favourite sounds, days before his imminent operation.
He sets off, armed with his late brother’s tape recorder, in the hopes of travelling across the country to record a host of unique noises, from wolves howling at midnight to a hundred soda cans opening at the same time.
Before his journey begins, he bumps into Wendy (CAM’s Madeline Brewer), a struggling musician escaping to New York City for the opportunity of a lifetime. Together, they drive across state lines, crossing off Marcus’ list, one by one, until painful revelations force Marcus to confront a future without hearing.
The Ultimate Playlist of Noise is an enthusiastic film that struggles with pace, igniting a spark during some scenes, and burning out during others. It has its peaks and its downfalls, neglecting consistency in the hopes of a multi-layered conversation. Although Marcus’ physical journey is depicted, the portrayal of his emotional journey is minimal. The film’s direction is fixated on the conclusion, leaving no attention to the emotional complexities of Marcus’ situation. Nevertheless, it’s a humble film. It doesn’t try to escape the organic characteristics of a conventional teen movie, embracing the cringe-worthy narration, the unimaginative notion that a boy fancies a girl because “she’s just different”, and the compulsory pop culture references.
Marcus is a self-described “playlist doctor”, but the soundtrack doesn’t quite live up to expectations. The film is interwoven with indie songs, maybe as a half-hearted effort to remind us of Marcus’ music obsession, but there’s nothing memorable despite the feature of two original songs – intrinsic to the film’s plot. Still, the presence of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” does afford some penance.
The Ultimate Playlist of Noise doesn’t have the tools to scratch beneath the surface, using deafness as a plot device to muddle through complex and nuanced subject matters.
Johnson and Brewer are charming and charismatic, lending heartfelt moments, laughs, and tears. The familiar but classic ”quirky boy meets spunky girl” pairing embodies a catalyst for the film’s dramatic development, allowing Johnson and Brewer’s performances to complement each other. Having both acquired grittier roles in past projects (Johnson with Euphoria, and Brewer with Orange Is the New Black/A Handmaid’s Tale), The Ultimate Playlist of Noise enables them to explore their versatility, to personify a more tender, gentler atmosphere.
Adjacent to Marcus’ bucket list is his relationship with his parents, primarily his overprotective mother, Alyssa (Rya Kihlstedt). The emotionally charged scenes between the two drives this film outwith the perimeters of “teen movie”, challenging audiences with difficult family dynamics. Kihlstedt’s performance seeps with maternalistic but misguided intentions, laying the foundation for some of the film’s most profound and raw scenes.
Despite a unique narrative, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise doesn’t have the tools to scratch beneath the surface, using deafness as a plot device to muddle through complex and nuanced subject matters. Marcus’ inevitable deafness is integral to the story’s arc, but deafness, and d/Deaf audiences, aren’t given the consideration they deserve.
As many disabled and d/Deaf audiences know, one of the most harmful and tedious tropes within media is the uttering of phrases like “If I were you [a disabled person], I’d kill myself.” or “If I was going deaf/blind, I’d shoot myself!” This sentiment, thinly disguised as a compliment to a disabled person’s resilience, is in fact shrouded in archaic ableism and wilful ignorance to the lives of disabled people.
This language perpetuates the dangerous and eugenics-born belief that life isn’t worth living if you’re disabled or deaf. If films are to carefully address this phrasing, then the narrative has to include subsequent dialogue to precisely explain why this language is so detrimental to the wellbeing of disabled people.
This is where The Ultimate Playlist of Noise fails in serving Deaf audiences. This redundant remark is mentioned by characters numerous times, perhaps as a poor attempt to contradict the eventual ground-breaking discovery that d/Deaf people can live happily without hearing. Underwhelmingly, it’s capped off with a weak and anticlimactic final monologue in a shallow attempt to address this rhetoric, casting aside a prime opportunity to educate young hearing audiences.
That said, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise does harbour a handful of genuine and resonating moments, making it a standout for the often underestimated “teen movie” genre. It’s not afraid to confront audiences, but it just falls short of being thought-provoking, skimming the surface instead of building to a grander conclusion. In the end, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise doesn’t find its voice, leaving us with a whisper.
The Ultimate Playlist of Noise is currently streaming on Hulu.