By Jessica Alexander
Visual albums have only recently become a major feature in the entertainment world, and regardless of how one feels about their existence, it would be difficult to make the argument that they aren’t intriguing. “K-12,” a film which accompanies the identically named album by Melanie Martinez, is an unexpected breakthrough for this genre. Whereas sometimes a visual album can be dominated by either its visuals or its music, “K-12” hits just the right notes and almost seamlessly combines the two.
This is especially impressive considering that “K-12” was written entirely by Martinez, who had no prior experience as a screenwriter or director. Another groundbreaking young filmmaker, Alissa Torvinen, co-directed the film, and, together, their youthful approach is refreshing. What “K-12 lacks in plot, it more than makes up for with its visuals, its music, and its feminist perspective.
“K-12” begins with Crybaby (Martinez) getting ready for her first day at a school “in which girls are only to wear pink dresses, and boys, blue pants.” Throughout the film, the audience sees two young girls with special powers, Crybaby and her best friend, Angelita (Emma Harvey), navigate the difficulties of female adolescence against the backdrop of a cult-like, patriarchal world that wields the gender binary as its tool of oppression.
“Beyond its shortfalls, “K-12” is fun. It tackles serious societal and feminist issues while still maintaining an upbeat atmosphere throughout. The film’s plot, while lacking in places, still manages to impart important lessons and raise serious questions from an adolescent perspective without dumbing anything down for its audience.”
While the beginning of the film, and its opening musical number, are perhaps slightly out of step with the rest of the film, the visuals are interesting enough to keep one’s attention long enough to get through to the more cohesive pieces. The first still the audience sees of the school that Crybaby attends, instantly conjures up images from “the Grand Budapest Hotel.” In fact, the visuals throughout the film remain stunning, impressing upon the viewers the carefulness with which they were planned.
What many visual albums struggle with is the inclusion of songs that make sense both separately as an album, and with the narrative of the film. This is also the major weakness of “K-12.” The film has made some advances compared to other musical albums in the sense that the musical numbers are tied together more cohesively through plot and other scenes.
The majority of the songs in “K-12” are layered with feminist undertones and lyrics which are critical of patriarchal themes. For example, the song “Strawberry Shortcake” slams the double standards that adolescent girls are subjected to.
However, these numbers still feel more individualized than what one would expect from a traditional musical, and many of them, such as “High School Sweethearts,” still leave the impression that one has just seen a music video. Because of this, the plot does feel somewhat disjointed, although it comes together well enough by the end. A smaller weakness of “K-12” is its acting. While Martinez has certainly proven herself as a musician, and now as a director, she lacks the grace of a natural actor. The cast is certainly not terrible, but they aren’t exceptional either. However, a highlight of the casting is that the diversity feels refreshingly natural.
Though the songs in “K-12” fail to blend effortlessly into the plot the way songs in a musical might, they do provide an interesting and reflective background for the film. A major critique of pop music from its detractors is often that it can appear superficial, at least on the surface; These critics would find little to protest in Martinez’s songs.
The majority of the songs in “K-12” are layered with feminist undertones and lyrics which are critical of patriarchal themes. For example, the song “Strawberry Shortcake” slams the double standards that adolescent girls are subjected to, with Martinez crooning, “Gotta make sure that my legs are shiny. Hot wax melting, burn my skin. People all around me are watching closely. ‘Cause it’s how I look and not what I think.” Some of her songs delve even deeper, such as “Orange Juice,” which discusses the issue of bulimia with a surprising amount of care.
Beyond its shortfalls, “K-12” is fun. It tackles serious societal and feminist issues while still maintaining an upbeat atmosphere throughout. The film’s plot, while lacking in places, still manages to impart important lessons and raise serious questions from an adolescent perspective without dumbing anything down for its audience. The music is energizing and enjoyable, yet thought-provoking, and the visuals are enough by themselves to hold an audience’s attention. “K-12,” though imperfect, is noteworthy for its genre.