Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Shoplifters Of The World is nothing but reference porn for fans of The Smiths

Helena Howard in Shoplifters Of The World
Helena Howard in Shoplifters Of The World
Photo: RLJE Films

Note: The writer of this review watched Shoplifters Of The World on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.

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Shoplifters Of The World seems intended as a love letter to The Smiths, but in trying to convey the British band’s importance, it comes across more like fan fiction—too reference-heavy for a general audience, too shallow for those already in the know. The catalyzing event for a tight-knit group of recent high school graduates is the Smiths’ 1987 breakup, which sends poor Cleo (Helena Howard of Madeline’s Madeline) into a performative funk. Not only is her friend group heading in different life directions, but her guiding musical light has been dimmed. She turns to shy record store clerk Dean (Boyhood star Ellar Coltrane), who’s nursing a crush on Cleo and allows her to shoplift all the cassettes she can pocket. (Strangely, it’s a lot of Smiths’ tapes, which presumably she’d already own.)

In a grand romantic gesture undercut with the threat of violence—those always work out well—Dean takes over a heavy metal radio station, holding DJ Full Metal Mickey (Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello) at gunpoint and insisting that he play nothing but The Smiths all night long. This part of the story—very loosely based on an actual event—is supposed to provide the movie’s hook, but the resulting conflict is basically non-existent. There’s never the sense that this sweet, mopey kid presents any real danger, so the relationship heads where good stories go to die: sweet understanding and unearned growth. Dean and the DJ talk like old chums about divorce, vegetarianism, and music. Metal Mickey rapidly learns to appreciate The Smiths, even though he’s a diehard Metallica fan, and Dean learns that there might be some common ground between the music he worships and the music he despises. (Spoiler: It’s the New York Dolls.)

Meanwhile, the bulk of Shoplifters concerns itself with four other characters navigating that same night, and each is absolutely malnourished by the script. Patrick (James Bloor) won’t have sex with his jonesing-for-it girlfriend, Sheila (Elena Kampouris), claiming to be celibate like Smiths’ singer Morrissey, when in actuality he’s wrestling with his sexuality. Meanwhile, oddball Billy (Nick Krause) also holds a flame for Cleo, but finds sexual satisfaction in pink balloons. (He’s also about to join the military, and his very hetero dad couldn’t be more proud.) Each has a surface-level story, but none has much of a personality beyond “Smiths fan.” In order to explain that fandom, the movie turns to archival interviews with Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, sprinkling them liberally throughout as a complement to the Smiths-heavy soundtrack.

To further reinforce the band’s importance, Shoplifters Of The World crams Smiths’ lyrics into its characters’ mouths in nearly every scene, a choice that moves from distraction to annoyance pretty quickly—especially when the song quotes don’t exactly address the plot. When Cleo breaks down about her life in front of Billy and reveals that they tried to be a couple once but it didn’t work out, he says, “I would leap in front of a flying bullet for you.” The line makes great sense in the context of a great song—”What Difference Does It Make?”—but very little as a line of dialogue here. Smiths devotees might get a kick out of these quotes for a while. Everyone else will be left scratching their heads. The gimmick is so pervasive that it’d almost be a relief if one of the characters turned to camera and said, “Those are Smiths lyrics!” Perhaps it could even inspire a drinking game, though if you consumed a shot every time it happened, you’d be on the floor before the movie ended.

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For years, Smiths fans retold the story that inspired Shoplifters Of The World as fact, but what actually happened is far more in keeping with the band’s outsider legacy than a bunch of attractive teens quoting lyrics and wrestling with post-adolescence. Denver alt-weekly Westword set the record straight a few years back, revealing that in reality, a depressed teen named James Kiss parked outside a radio station with a rifle, planning to force the staff to play his Smiths tapes over the air. But after seeing a station employee in the parking lot, he decided not to go through with it, later saying, “I didn’t want to hurt anybody, let alone scare anybody.” Those deeply invested in the music of The Smiths—which is still relevant and powerful nearly 40 years later, a fact undamaged by this movie—will recognize that story as more true to the band’s nuanced legacy: teenaged, clumsy, and shy, but also complicated and believable. Nothing in Shoplifters Of The World comes close to those latter qualities.