If you're of a certain demographic, your taste in film was probably affected (at least in some way) by one of the many Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOMs for short) that the channel would (and still does) push out every year. Even if you never watched the Disney Channel, chances are you've at least heard of some of the ones that sunk into the pop culture zeitgeist ('High School Musical,' 'Halloweentown,' 'The Descendants,' etc.)
Now whether or not those films are "good" or not is a whole other conversation, but I prefer to focus on an adjacent conversation, that being the cult classic-like fandoms nearly every DCOM has produced. Fans of 'The Thirteenth Year' probably didn't stick around 20 years later for the live-action 'Kim Possible' film, but the latter is going to be the defining film to someone in that age group, an idea Disney Channel has always bet on.
In other words, everyone who was introduced to DCOMs has has a passionate favorite, good film or not, and, for me, that presented itself in 2011's 'Lemonade Mouth.' While I never got around to reading the original Mark Peter Hughes novel, the film was a landmark when I was first exposed to it. For a teenage nerd just starting his first band, 'Lemonade Mouth' came around at exactly the right time, with a ragtag group of musicians just trying to express themselves and deal with whatever nonsense life had to throw at them.
Having just re-watched the film for its 10th anniversary, I would still contend that 'Lemonade Mouth' is still on of the best DCOMs the Disney Channel has ever produced. That statement might vary depending on how attached you are to these films (and especially if you grew up in this specific era of DCOMs), but 'Lemonade Mouth's biggest strength is a distinct focus and respect for its characters and themes. For what it's allowed to be, there's actual depth and heart at work here, anchored by a diverse cast of characters, good pacing and a soundtrack that, for the most part, still kind of slaps.
Singer Olivia White (played by Bridgit Mendler) is a shy songwriter living with her grandmother after recent family tragedies. Keyboardist Wen Gifford (played by Adam Hicks) is coming to terms with family changes as his father is thinking about proposing to his much younger girlfriend.
Drummer Charlie Delgado (played by Blake Michael) lives in the shadow of his soccer star brother, Tommy (played by Ryan Montano), and his parents hopes of a sports scholarship for college. Bassist Mohini "Mo" Banjaree (played by Naomi Scott) is attempting to live up to her parents expectations of excelling in school and hiding her relationship with Scott Pickett (played by Nick Roux), the lead guitarist for a local band, Mudslide Crush.
Finally, there's guitarist Stella Yamada (played by Hayley Kiyoko), the rebellious new girl whose displays of disobedience come into conflict with the overly strict Principal Brenigan (played by Christopher McDonald). One fateful day, Stella meets the other students in detention, which also serves as the school's underfunded music room. The teens bond over a seemingly out of place lemonade machine and begin messing around with the instruments, which leads to an impromptu jam session.
The group get caught by the detention supervisor and music teacher, Miss Reznick (played by Tisha Campbell-Martin), who encourages them to form a band. While initially skeptical, Stella's enthusiasm convinces them to give it a try and enter Rising Star, a local music competition for a record deal that Mudslide Crush will also be vying for. The five slowly come into their own as a band becoming role models for students that feel undervalued, all the while confronting their own very real doubts and problems.
As I mentioned before, the biggest strength of the film is how genuine the whole thing feels. A lot of that should be credited to director Patricia Riggen ('Under the Same Moon, 'Jack Ryan'), who gracefully maneuvers invigorating band sequences, crowded high school walk-and-talks and the smaller character beats. She's here to make sure the characters actually feel relatable and real before any of the Disney Channel sheen has to be draped over, and she does a great job with it.
There's also the matter of the cast and it's kind of fascinating seeing the cast a decade later. Adam Hicks has had a few scattered film roles (and has had some legal troubles recently), Blake Michael popped up on Netflix's 'Voltron: Legendary Defender' series, Bridgit Mendler has been busy with acting and songwriting, Hayley Kiyoko has become a full-blown LGBTQ icon, and Naomi Scott has become one of the biggest up-and-coming stars in Hollywood with 'Aladdin.'
It's clear that most of them are new talents at this point, but they all do a pretty good job with what they need to, both individually and collectively. That sense of relatability perforates through the film, nullifying some of the more cynical critiques in the process. Whether it be Stella sticking it to anyone around her who won't listen, Mo's growing sense of independence within her music, or Olivia and Wen's genuinely adorable budding romance, there's a lot that the film does to show conflict and growth which, for an intended mostly younger audience, is certainly saying something.
Then, of course, there is the soundtrack itself which is admittedly a bit clunky and dated (it's a Disney Channel soundtrack from the club boom, it is what it is). But I also can't deny that a lot of these songs have held up especially well in the context of the film, from the pleasant pop rock of "Somebody" to the electro-pop of "Determinate" to the 90's alternative-tinged "She's So Gone" (the best song here, fight me).
But of course I have to toss off the rose-colored glasses, even temporarily. 'Lemonade Mouth,' for as genuine as it tries to be, is also a DCOM and that comes with shortcomings outside of its original context. For one thing, not every device the film uses entirely works, from Olivia's almost sitcom-style narration, the decision to make the songs more "modernized" (apparently very different from the novel), and the countless story tropes that can start to feel really overbearing on the story.
That kind of Disney Channel quota does extend into the soundtrack as well, not to blame the songs themselves, but more of what's featured in the movie. It almost feels too clean, like every song has to be the next radio smash and there just wasn't room for a demo track or two to make the creative process feel (dare I say) genuine.
Plus, as much credit as I want to give some of these storylines and character moments, they do only go so far. That's a bit disappointing if not solely because there are DCOMs out there that felt like they didn't have to compromise so much for family friendly quotas and this really could have gone an extra mile with it.
Is 'Lemonade Mouth' a great film? I think it depends on what your mileage of "great" is. The film is incredibly earnest, but also clearly a product of its time. It has a lot of faith in its characters, but plays things a bit too safe. It's about finding your voice and self-expression, but it's not immune to clashing voices on-screen. For me, the wall of my nostalgia is a bit too hardened at this point.
I recognize what it is and where it falls short, but, to some degree, I don't think I would be where I am or love playing music the way I do if not for 'Lemonade Mouth.' It's a movie that, even a decade later, is an incredibly fun coming-of-age movie that is bolder than it needs to be and makes a legitimate effort to (if I may quote the film) "be heard, be strong, be proud," that's something I've got to respect.
Overall, I give 'Lemonade Mouth' 8/10
'Lemonade Mouth' is currently available to stream on Disney Plus.
Want to follow me on social media? Follow me on Twitter and IG @TheMovieKing45