Metal Lords review: Keep calm and rock on

How metal can high school be?

That’s the question at the heart of Metal Lords, the new film from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist director Peter Sollett, that follows a pair of teenage friends who set out to win their school’s Battle of the Bands competition by forming a heavy metal band with a cello-playing classmate. Their effort puts them at odds with parents, teachers, and (of course) the school’s jocks, but will metal be strong enough to hold their friendship together when love drives a wedge between them?

While the premise gives off some young-adult, coming-of-age vibes that aren’t entirely off-base, Metal Lords does boast some hardcore cred behind the camera. Game of Thrones co-creator D.B Weiss penned the film’s script, and while the film doesn’t feature any brutal eye-gouging or head-lopping, it does manage to squeeze in some gratuitous nudity, one gnarly injury, and plenty of dialogue that would make Tyrion Lannister blush.

It also features one hell of a head-banging, Satan-hailing, speaker-busting soundtrack, with Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello serving as the film’s music producer. Maybe most importantly, though, is that it’s a damn fine tale of teenage rebellion set amid those awkward early years when it seems that life-defining moments seem to lurk around every corner.

The cast of Metal Lords is led by It and Knives Out actor Jaeden Martell as Kevin Schlieb, who reluctantly agrees to become the drummer in a metal band formed by his best friend, Hunter Sylvester, played by newcomer Adrian Greensmith. After an embarrassing encounter at a party, Hunter sets out to prove the power of heavy metal to their classmates and the world — but first, they need another bandmate. The solution to their dilemma arrives in Emily Spector, a painfully shy exchange student played by Isis Hainsworth (Emma) who also happens to be a talented cellist with her own set of social and psychological challenges to overcome.

It’s easy to dismiss the familiar simplicity of Metal Lords‘ premise, but there’s quite a lot going on in the film that sets it apart from typical high-school comedy fare. Although Martell is the film’s most recognizable lead (outside of memorable cameos by Magic Mike actor Joe Manganiello and several popular metal musicians, that is), it’s the two lesser-known leads that steal the show. Kevin’s evolution from shy wallflower to confident musician happens a bit quickly in the time constraints of the narrative, but it’s handled well by Martell, who visibly grows into the character as the story unfolds. However, Greensmith takes his role and runs away with it (sometimes literally), stealing every scene he’s in with a charisma that feels barely contained by the screen. Despite every misstep and self-defeating decision he makes, Greensmith’s performance makes Hunter’s certainty of purpose infectious, and it’s hard to root against him — even when he’s being just the sort of cocky teenager you should dislike.

Hainsworth also delivers a surprisingly complex performance as British transfer student Emily, whose quiet demeanor hides an ongoing struggle with her own body chemistry that makes her prone to vulgar and occasionally violent outbursts without medication. Hainsworth does a wonderful job juggling the extremes of Emily’s role in the film, and her chemistry with both Martell and Greensmith sells all of the complicated emotions at play between the three characters.

The performances by the film’s three young leads aren’t the only pleasant surprises in Metal Lords, which also handles some of the usual tropes of high school coming-of-age stories in unexpected ways. Characters you expect to fall on a particular side of the protagonist-antagonist dynamic, thanks to countless iterations of the genre, often occupy different places within the story of Metal Lords, and it’s a change that helps the film feel fresh and unique in a crowded field.

It’s as fun as its premise suggests but deeper thematically and narratively than you might expect. Metal Lords succeeds on the strength of excellent performances by its three lead actors and its willingness to diverge from many of the usual, well-worn tropes. You might not be able to tell the difference between Black Sabbath and Pantera, but there’s a good chance Metal Lords will make you believe in the power of heavy metal.

Directed by Peter Sollett, Metal Lords premieres April 8 on Netflix.