March of the Indie Kids: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist generated buzzing interest prior to its theatrical release in early October. But, as a film where most all of the positive reviews could offer little more than descriptions as a “sweet little movie,” it’s destined for cult status upon DVD release.

The failure to make much of an impression isn’t all that surprising. Adapted from Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s pop novel, the anti-climatic plot centers on a handful of bland, interconnected teenage indie music fans who spend a Friday night traversing Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Village to fend off obnoxious ex’s, flesh out potential new relationships, track down a missing drunk friend, and find clues to a secret show hosted by their favorite band. All of it is very reminiscent of young, night-out vignette relationship comedies like 200 Cigarettes and Detroit Rock City. But where Nick & Norah lures admirers with innocent charm, it becomes persistently (and annoyingly) unimposing. This is “indie” personified.

With playful lettering doting about the opening credits, or the casting of Michael Cera as the leading character, Nick, or filling the soundtrack with popular indie bands, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist might elicit expectations that this is something obsessed with being quirky like Juno or willing to trump substance entirely for the sake of novelty like Napoleon Dynamite. Aside from Nick’s unique mode of transportation – one of the last functioning Hugos, a queer-core band called The Jerk Offs, and a running gag involving chewing gum, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist gives its characters and settings a genuine and sincere focus, but to the extent that it becomes about as “slice of life” as you can get… well, except for Norah’s family ties to the music industry.

The movie begins with the typical exaggerated teenage dramas. Heartbroken Nick (portrayed in Michael Cera’s typical soft-spoken, down-to-earth manner) takes the day off from school to busy himself with making a mix CD for the insensitive Tris (Alexis Denzia, who makes a more believable as a Romanian Olympic gymnast than a high school student), the girl who broke up with him on his birthday. His friends, with whom he plays in The Jerk Offs, encourage their depressed mate to get out of the house and join them for the gig they’re playing in the city (curiously, they’re headlining for Bishop Allen).

Elsewhere at a posh private school, Tris tells a gaggle of gossipy classmates that she’s glad she and Nick finally broke up as she tosses into the trash yet another mix CD he’d given her. It’s the typical situation of the decent guy temporarily clouded by the insincere girl. Norah (Kat Dennings) rescues the CD from the trash, as she’s done before. She’s Tris’s classmate and also her opposite. She doesn’t know Nick, but she’s a fan of his mix CDs, noting that he doesn’t just carefully select a playlist, but creates the artwork for the sleeve, too. Obviously, Tris just never “got it”.

Nick and Norah: innocuously adorable smart kids with a musical kinship who are clearly perfect for each other.

The young cast of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist are are unsupervised, vintage-clad, self-conscious, occassionally profound, and randomly adventurous. And they share a Friday night we’ve all had at that age: vague plans with friends and no particular need to remain stationary. Hell, the aimless wandering and haphazzard interaction still occurs for the unsettled drinking-age crowd living in the city. And for the curiously nomadic, the possibilities are endless in New York City. Though, it’s funny how much gas these particular friends blow driving all over Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Village, or how they always manage to find a parking space right in front of their destination.

But, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist deserves praise for reviving a seemingly dead sub-genre of teen films: music as a quintissential role in youth socialization (not to sound so academic about it). This is a sub-genre distinct from the urban teen movies that have emerged in the last ten years, as the vicarious thrill of breakdancing showdowns or the epic drum cadence take on music in a more concrete, rather than abstract political and expressive form or, more simply, that understanding of “better living through music.”

Early on, it was rock n’ roll (American Grafitti, I Wanna Hold Your Hand) that embodied the youngster’s principals, ambitions and rebellion and, for most teen films (exceptions being movies like House Party), it has been variations of rock n’ roll ever since (Quadrophenia, American Pop, Suburbia, Empire Records, 200 Cigarettes). Indie music is the latest epoch of rock music (derivative as it is), one guided by a new generation of music-makers and fans quite different from the cigarettes-and-leather generations before them. It may seem tamer by comparison, but indie music embraces themes of the inward and emotional, the sentiment (even Juno did the same, with it’s Moldy Peaches/Kimya Dawson-filled soundtrack). Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist‘s own playlist includes the likes of the more well-known: Band of Horses, Ratatat, We Are Scientists, Tapes N’ Tapes, The Ravonettes, Vampire Weekend, Modest Mouse, and Bishop Allen, who also make a cameo appearance, among others.

Indie, in its somber form, shares a devotion to the internal with the last major epoch of rock: Grunge (although only to some extent, since Grunge itself still had ties to the politics of punk). But, where indie does avoid indulging quirky novelty, it seems to remain so dreadfully subtle. The marching feet fade into whimpers.