When you’re a teenager, every little upset feels like the end of the world. Failing a test, losing the big game, watching your crush take someone else to prom, or even finding out that your favorite band broke up can send you to bed in tears. In fact, in 1987, one teen was so moved by the music of The Smiths that, after the band broke up, he plotted to break into a local radio station and force the DJ to play nothing but Smiths tracks at gunpoint. In real life, the young man turned himself in before going through with his plan. But in Shoplifters of the World, a cinematic tribute to The Smiths, writer/ director Stephen Kijak imagines a different outcome to the story. Although The Smiths may be long broken up, you can relive the mood and culture they inspired with a DVD or Blu-ray copy of Shoplifters of the World from RLJE Films.
When college-aged Cleo (Helena Howard) hears the news that her favorite band, The Smiths, just broke up, she heads over to a local record store to mourn by carrying out her favorite pastime, shoplifting. But the clerk, Dean (Ellar Coltrane), doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s got such a big crush on Cleo that he lets her steal from the store all the time, despite disciplinary warnings from his boss (Thomas Lennon). In honor of The Smiths and in an attempt to impress Cleo, Dean makes a plan that will “go down in musical history.” That night, he sneaks into a local radio station and holds the DJ, Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello), at gunpoint, forcing him to play Smiths tracks all night long. Meanwhile, Cleo meets up with her friends and fellow Smiths fans, Billy (Nick Krause), Patrick (James Bloor), and (you guessed it) Sheila (Elena Kampouris) for a night of angsty partying and mourning. The gang wanders around town, jumping from bars to clubs to parties, as they wallow in sorrow and muddle through their teen identity crises. All the while, “their” music continues to blast on the radio.
Parts of Shoplifters of the World are humorously self-aware, poking gentle fun at teenage dramatics. In the first few scenes, Kijak sets up a fantasy world that reflects the stereotypical perspective of a self-obsessed teenager. Cleo is the main character of her story, and she knows it. Her cry of agony when she learns of the Smiths’s breakup is nothing short of campy. She is clearly the center of her own world as she exits the record store in slow motion, stolen goods in her jacket, with the title track playing in the background. There’s certainly sincerity to be found in humor, camp, and self-aware extravagance, but Shoplifters of the World gets lost trying to find that sincerity. The movie tries really, really, really hard to be an ‘80s coming-of-age film, but it just takes itself too seriously. It doesn’t have the quirky characters, humor, and satisfactory emotional roadmap that makes those ‘80s classics so successful.
In the style of jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia and Across the Universe, Shoplifters of the World is written to support a specific soundtrack. Each scene pairs perfectly with a certain Smiths song, driving home the notion that the band just “gets” these kids and their emotions. Unlike traditional jukebox musicals where characters burst into song, however, the characters in Shoplifters of the World just head out to the dance floor to shake out their feelings as the right Smiths song just happens to come on the radio. In this sense, the movie is more like an extended jukebox music video than musical. But in trying to create the perfect narrative for a Smiths soundtrack, the movie shows its efforts a little too much.
A music video can certainly tell a deep and meaningful story, but its main purpose is to supplement a specific song. A well-crafted music video can pack a punch because it’s so short, but stretch out that video over an hour and a half and your audience will start to get bored. This is what happens with Shoplifters of the World. Although the characters are battling serious conflicts, they never develop beyond what the soundtrack requires. Cleo, Sheila, Billy, and Patrick are more like generalized concepts than realistic personas. These characters support the ideas and themes of The Smiths songs, but they feel like first-draft character sketches. Perhaps it’s the never-ending barrage of Smiths lyrics (which the characters quote to each other like millennials quote Vines) that makes these characters sound forced, or maybe it’s the constant emotional rollercoaster that, although reflective of what a teen might go through on a daily basis, is a bit excessive. Their dramatics make them fun to watch, but the characters never develop beneath the surface. It’s worth noting, however, that Manganiello’s portrayal of Full Metal Mickey is a realistic breath of fresh air that balances out the stale teenage angst.
But again, like a music video, Shoplifters of the World focuses more on mood and style than character development and plot. And, by themselves, the film’s mood and style are very successful. While the story may get tiring, each individual scene is nostalgic and moody in the best way. The movie simply lacks the narrative substance to support that extravagant style. Everything about the production design is wild, cinematic, and exciting. Shoplifters of the World is a visual goldmine of ‘80’s nostalgia, filled with the clothing, hairstyles, makeup, and, of course, soundtrack of the ‘80’s teen movies that it so desperately wants to imitate.
The Blu-ray includes two brief behind the scenes featurettes consisting of cast and crew interviews. Although the features are short, they give us a glimpse of Kijak’s sincere love for The Smiths and reveal the creative team’s intent to make a timeless film that any generation could relate to. Knowing the intentions behind the movie helps us to focus on its successful elements and forgive its flaws. Although the story doesn’t fall into place, Shoplifters of the World is a fun flick that, at least in mood and style, pays tribute to classic band.
Shoplifters of the World Special Features
- English and Spanish subtitles
- Story & Inspiration featurette
- Look & Feel featurette
Available on DVD and Blu-ray June 1st, 2021.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.