NEW YORK (CNS) — Coming across the title “Jem and the Holograms” (Universal), those unfamiliar with the source material — an animated television series from the 1980s — might assume this is a sci-fi-oriented action-fantasy with a youngish heroine. They would be half right.

Although technology figures prominently and the female protagonist behaves courageously, this live-action picture is actually a coming-of-age musical about a girl band. What empowers the title character is her willingness to express herself creatively and take control of her destiny, not feats of derring-do or the ability to harness gadgets.

Jerrica Benton and her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) are orphans living with their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald, a coming-of-age screen icon from an earlier generation) in a central California town. Bailey also has raised two foster children, Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko). The four girls are talented musicians, adept at vocal harmonization and brimming with style and personality.

One day Jerrica, who’s shy about her abilities, records herself playing the guitar and singing a ballad she’s composed. Using the moniker Jem — the nickname her late father bestowed — she keeps her real identity a secret. When, unbeknown to her, the video is posted on the Internet and goes viral, Jem becomes an instant sensation.

Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), a rapacious and snarky music producer, wants to turn her into a superstar, but Jerrica insists she and her three sisters are a package deal. The four young ladies go to Hollywood where Erica and her male intern, Rio (Ryan Guzman), set about making them into a pop band led by the mysterious Jem, who resembles a cross between Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and David Bowie in his glam-rock days.

Jem brings along her most treasured possession — a pint-sized robot that her father, an inventor, built. This impish machine, called Synergy, provides a direct link to the past and leads the girls on a kind of treasure hunt throughout Los Angeles, where Jerrica and Kimber were born.

Aubrey Peeples exhibits great poise and likability in the title role. She’s intelligent, kind and fetching, plus she has the singing chops and musicianship to give her performance authenticity. It’s easy to believe this Jem could inspire individuals who lack confidence, are isolated or feel marginalized.

Despite being a noticeably low-budget affair, the production does an excellent job of reshaping the material for contemporary audiences. It offers genuine insight into issues fundamental to life in the digital age. Topping the list are the effects, both positive and negative, of social media and the Internet on personal identity.

Director Jon M. Chu and his editing team neatly incorporate numerous video clips submitted by real-life fans of the “Jem” series — snippets of young people making music, dancing or testifying to how much Jem has motivated them.

The rock music composed by Nathan Lanier is pleasant and catchy enough, and most of the lyrics are unobjectionable. Emphasizing the values of loyalty, integrity and freedom of expression, the movie packages a salubrious message in an attractive veneer that should appeal to teens and pre-teens.

To be sure, the operative definition of family is not the traditional one (no mention is ever made of Jerrica and Kimber’s mother). And the movie insists on showing how Jem is a source of inspiration for young male homosexuals. In general, while comparatively tame and never blatantly inappropriate, the tone and subject matter aren’t geared for children. The content advisory below indicates where “Jem” is not at its squeaky-cleanest.

Will “Jem and the Holograms” trend? Will it stand out at the box office and become a sensation in its own right? Unfortunately, in this media environment the odds are stacked against a wholesome entertainment that treats pertinent social issues with style, enthusiasm and sensitivity.

The film contains two instances of crass language, a few borderline profane exclamations, one instance of toilet humor in the form of an emoticon, two kisses between unmarried young adults, one shot of a bare male upper torso, and some mildly suggestive song lyrics. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II – adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG – parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.


John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.