I was a little worried about Hulu’s recent film release, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise, even before I watched it. The trailer teased a fair amount of young adult entertainment tropes, including that of the sick-teen-in-love, found in films like The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and Five Feet Apart (2019), based on young adult novels written by John Green and Rachael Lippincott with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. But it also promised a story with romance, road trips, and rock music. So I thought to myself, how bad could it be?
As it turns out, pretty bad. And while there are many reasons (from the film’s shaky handling of mental illness to the farfetched story itself) why I could scream Don’t waste your time watching this coming-of-age tale when there are so many better ones out there, Wendy — the film’s central love interest — is perhaps the single biggest problem. In order to understand why Wendy is a terribly written character, however, we have to take a deeper look at this film’s plot. Here’s your warning that, yes, there will be a lot of spoilers about the film’s romance.
The Ultimate Playlist of Noise is about Marcus (Keean Johnson), a teenager who loves hearing things so much that he constantly wears a pair of headphones and earbuds at the same time — one for music and one for ambiance. Unfortunately, Marcus ends up having a seizure at a concert, which leads doctors to discover a couple of non-cancerous tumors near his brain. While the doctors give little explanation as to why these tumors are harmful, they recommend they be removed even though Marcus will go deaf in the process.
I’m sure anyone — not just people with a weird headphone-layering quirk — would be devastated to learn they were going to lose their hearing. But while it’s awfully convenient that this tragic occurrence would happen to this specific boy, what’s even more convenient is that right before he learns of this untimely fate, he meets the funny, edgy, cool-girl of his dreams: Wendy.
Wendy, played by the definitely-not-a-teenager, then 27-year-old Madeline Brewer, is the indie-pop opener at the concert Marcus has a seizure at. And though Marcus doesn’t usually care about openers or believe in love at first sight, he does believe in love at first sound, which is why he becomes fully entranced by this mystery girl the moment he
sees how hot she is hears her sing. Though he doesn’t get the chance to talk to Wendy after her set ends, he does randomly hit her with his car some days later (magically, she’s not injured), right as he’s about to embark on a massive road trip to New York City.
Though his parents don’t approve, Marcus is driving across the country because he wants to experience 50 of the world’s greatest sounds one more time before his surgery, topping it all off by listening to a music demo his late brother recorded at a studio in the Big Apple. Conveniently, Wendy’s headed there, too, and says she’s meeting with — get this — Marcus’ favorite artist, who could give her a future in music. And because her deranged ex-boyfriend is violently chasing after her on his motorcycle at the exact moment Marcus collides with her, she hops into his car, and the two speed off toward the city together, recording sounds, falling in love, and having fun along the way.
The couple’s dynamic is clear from the get-go. Marcus is the sad, lonely boy who needs to be pulled out of his shell by a fun, bubbly girl like Wendy who is so perfect, she even owns the same obscure vintage guitar as his favorite artist, whom she claims to be meeting. On the trip, Wendy does things like make a bet with Marcus that the loser of their bowling match eats a moldy hot dog. She strips down to her underwear to take him swimming in a stranger’s private pool. She pulls the fire alarm at the roller skating rink to trigger the sprinkles and clear people out so they have the floor to themselves. She takes him drinking, plays moody songs on her guitar, and tells Marcus that all the girls must love him.
In other words, Wendy is the epitome of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. And while I think it’s important to not unfairly slap the MPDG term on every quirky female character, Wendy isn’t just a girl who has interesting passions and doesn’t care what other people think; she’s a girl solely created to take the male protagonist on wondrous adventures and make him feel better about his depressing circumstances. She’s so deeply unrealistic that her single aspiration — to go to New York to meet the artist who liked her demo — turns out to be a complete lie. She only told Marcus this to catch a ride with him and get away from her ex-boyfriend. Her traumas aren’t even fully expanded upon, constrained to a few poorly fleshed-out moments.
Just because Wendy doesn’t ultimately end up with Marcus doesn’t mean she deconstructs the MPDG trope. Even after the two have gone their separate ways (Wendy stays in New York and Marcus goes home to have his surgery) she still — even on her own, miles way — somehow exists to benefit him. At the climax of the film, Marcus discovers that Wendy sold her guitar. But after she hears a recording Marcus took of her playing it, she decides to steal it back from the shop she sold it to and send him a flirty recording to make him feel better about the future. It doesn’t matter that she tacks on the line, “Maybe that’s the point — you know, that reality never really matches your expectations,” because not a single part of her character development agreed with this sentiment across the entire movie. In actuality, she goes beyond every one of his expectations even without becoming his full-time girlfriend, failing to ever develop a personality that’s her own. She’s nothing more than a male fantasy. She didn’t have to be.
The Ultimate Playlist of Noise might be decently produced and acted, but it’s hard to suspend disbelief and feel that Wendy could be real, even inside such an implausible plot. Rather than existing as a female character who’s interesting and complex, she’s simply an edgier version of a sexist trope that should have died long ago.
Wendy is deeply unrelatable. And because of this, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise falls flat.
The Ultimate Playlist of Noise is now streaming on Hulu.