Overshare: are there any good films about social media?

From Mainstream to Profile to Sweat, three films released this summer attempt the rare feat of capturing the experience of being online in a hyper-connected world

There are several elements of Mainstream, Gia Coppola’s dark satire of YouTube stardom released in theaters this month, that resemble a stick-figure rendering of internet fame. The film, written by Coppola, supposes that a technophobic, shady drifter named Link (Andrew Garfield) morphs, under the guidance of aspiring film-maker Frankie (Maya Hawke) into a messianic, exhibitionist star somewhat of the trolling Jake Paul variety; his avatar, No One Special, appears to aim for the irony-poisoned, frenetic attention spans of Gen Z, but is a thirtysomething whose gameshow specials are filmed on a Hollywood set with a live audience, as opposed to the DIY aesthetic massively popular on the video platform.

Internet culture moves at warp speed, with microscopic trend generations and a hyper-specific aesthetic timeline, but Mainstream is unmoored from any particular era besides loose late-2010s. It’s adrift in the uncanny valley of films about the internet, boiling down an entire world of experience – parasocial relationships with influencers, the relentless hustle of building a following, the corrosive surreality of living for faceless likes – into a simple, pedantic message of social media: vacuous, vapid, bad.

Mainstream falls flat, in part, because it’s just not a good movie. But it also speaks to a larger difficulty of accurately capturing our screen lives, social or otherwise, on film. Since The Social Network in 2010, arguably still the most prominent film about social media (although it’s far less about one’s experience on early Facebook than one of the most expensive friendship breakups of all time, also co-starring Garfield), plenty of films and TV episodes have incorporated digital life incidentally – a character looking at their phone, Instagram tiles and text bubbles popped momentarily on the screen. But few films have taken social media as a premise and successfully captured the seamlessness and weight of our digital lives.

Mainstream is an egregious recent example of films about social media – including 2017’s The Circle, and arguably even the doomsday-calling Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma – that wind up mired in shallow moralism or a chintzy simulacrum of the internet. But two other social media-themed or adjacent films released this summer point to a different, more promising way, focused not so much on social media as a bogeyman than on human behavior as it pinballs between the guardrails of a screen, an app or a livestream.

Profile, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, is the latest in a mini-genre of so-called desktop cinema/computer screen films including Searching, Unfriended – both produced by Bekmambetov – and Spree, which take place entirely within a laptop or smartphone screen and thus adhere with hyper-specificity to the look and feel of your screen life. Sweat, a Polish-language film from the Swedish film-maker Magnus von Horn, observes a gorgeous, lonely fitness influencer straining to bridge the chasm between her peppy online persona and lonely personal life; the film relies heavily on a strong performance from its lead, Magdalena Koleśnik, to make watching a character’s mental descent into an iPhone rabbit hole interesting, as such successful internet-adjacent films as Ingrid Goes West and Eighth Grade. (As with many films, the pandemic extended the already long pipeline from festival circuit to wide release; Profile originally premiered at the Berlin film festival in 2018, and Sweat as part of the Cannes selection in 2020.)

Computer screen films work, in part, because they solve the inherent obsolescence of movies about the internet with an airtight timeline, down to the timestamps constantly pockmarking one’s screen, Facebook posts or text messages. Profile, in which a British journalist, Amy Whittaker, played by Valene Kane, impersonates a young Muslim woman on Facebook and Skype to investigate Islamic State recruitment in Europe, is specifically contained to two weeks in 2015 (the film is based on the book In The Skin of a Jihadist by Anna Erelle). The genre (which Bekmambetov, one its pioneers, accurately termed screenlife) works around one of the primary dramatic barriers to capturing the online on film – it’s usually boring to watch people type or scroll, and you can only watch so many FaceTime calls – by mimicking the kinetics of our over-stimulating screen interfaces and scattershot digital footprints. The more flustered Amy becomes in her risky ruse, the faster she bounces between windows and more manically she types; there’s a fragile human visible in the hovering of a cursor, or the backspacing of an iMessage.

Searching, in which single father David (John Cho) searches for his missing teenage daughter by peeling back the surprising layers of her online life, is by far the best of these films. David trawls through his daughter’s Facebook friends, unfurls the paper trail of her old texts, notes the dates of her moody Tumblr posts – all as much a part of her, and the truth of her disappearance, as the off-line teenage daughter he thought he knew. Even a throwaway graphic from screen life can be an emotional gut punch: when David logs in as his late wife Pam, who died of cancer two years prior, an automatic pop-up by Norton anti-virus reminds that it has been 694 days since the last scan.

Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West
Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West. Photograph: PR

The best films about social media, trite as it is to say, orbit not around tech but timeless human emotions – grief and nostalgia, but also envy, obsession, insecurity – be it in the disjoint between neutral screen interfaces and the emotional weight of their content, or the behavior exacerbated by social media’s ubiquity. Ingrid Goes West, directed by Matt Spicer, stretches commonplace Instagram envy into Ingrid’s (Aubrey Plaza) toxic, all-consuming obsession with consummate 2017 Cali cool Insta girl Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), with specific enough observations of the work behind above-plate avocado toast photos that some real-life influencers were rattled by its reflection.

Plaza is particularly mesmerizing as we watch Ingrid melt – in the tub, across her bed, on the floor – as she scrolls and scrolls into oblivion; Eighth Grade, directed by Bo Burnham, similarly employs observational, understated film-making to depict social media as what it is for teenagers – sometimes toxic, definitely concerning, also just a part of life. In a sequence set to Enya’s Orinoco Flow, we watch Kayla’s (Elise Fisher) screenlit face endure the scroll into Facebook, Snapchat, Buzzfeed quizzes – the scaffolding for a teenage girl’s yawning sense of inadequacy assembling in real time.

Magdalena Koleśnik in Sweat
Magdalena Koleśnik in Sweat. Photograph: Lava Films

Sweat also observes its protagonist deep in the scroll. The camera frequently hovers close to Koleśnik’s face as Sylwia, the fitness influencer beloved on Instagram Live (“my loves!” she opens every stream to fans who tearfully credit her with changing their life) who can’t carry her sanitized, perky persona off-camera. In one sequence, Sylwia, dressed tightly in sponsored swag, does what many with an iPhone do: toggle between a firehose of images and stimuli that don’t amount to coherence – a video from a fan, her empty apartment, a selfie from her workout event the previous day with smile firmly in place, text message, bright light, Instagram scroll while she pokes at a limp salad. There’s no preaching about inauthenticity or social media as a trap, no Mainstream-esque Link raving about phones as “crack cocaine” or how audiences need to “wake up”. It’s just life.

Sweat and Profile, like Ingrid Goes West and Eighth Grade and Searching before them, understand social media not as a subject of argument or even a subject itself, but as a baseline condition of the everyday. It’s a diffuse, difficult condition to capture, but it’s not impossible. Moralistic “social media is bad” messaging expired eons ago in internet time, but the feelings stoked and greased by our screens – insecurity nostalgia, anxiety, even joy – are evergreen.


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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