Like Me Review [SXSW 2017]
Like Me is more than a movie title. It’s a plea made to an entire generation of social media users. Filmmaker Robert Mockler dives into murky online waters of constant approval, fame and millennial obsessions with a like-based culture, all prevalent in society’s 21st-century screen fixation. As a junkie tweaks for their next hit, social media users also calculate their next play at attention. Yesterday’s shocks are forgotten overnight, as audiences awake with a new craving daily. Please the masses, and watch the hits roll in. But even then, when will the hunger subside?
Addison Timlin stars as Kiya, a young woman searching for her next YouTube masterpiece. Kiya’s photographic artwork only garners so much attention from internet fans (food chewing videos/yoga poses), which means the ante must be raised. It’s a “harmless” stunt, where she holds a convenience store clerk at *fake* gunpoint – but the man (Jeremy Gardner) still pisses himself without knowing the difference. Kiya uploads the video, and it goes viral overnight to the tune of 2 million hits. The internet is buzzing about her stunt, some praising the humor, while others – like Burt (Ian Nelson) – condemn her sick social disease. Either way, Kiya realizes what the people want, and she aims to please. Even if it means kidnapping a motel owner named Marshall (Larry Fessenden).
Mockler’s style will challenge some viewers since it’s comparable to a luminescent art installation. From the film’s first shot – a glowing drive-thru mart – to its last beachy view, visuals are of a psychotropic nature. Characters ingest drugs and sniff paint, unlocking hallucinogenic highs like a neon-green eel slithering out of someone’s open wound. As Kiya plays arcade shooter games or gazes upon the ocean (between scenic palm trees), cinematography frames these neo-Vegas portraits with arresting beauty. It might be a bit too “freaky” for some during fast-paced montages that flash animated wolves and blinking eyes, but Mockler’s introspective vision-quest is a wild visual feast nonetheless.
Even more sickening (in a positive way) are Mockler’s metaphors, since Kiya is obsessed with (over)consumption. More than one scene features a zoom-in on her chewing, mouth wide open. It’s always junk food. Cheese balls. Pizza. Gummies. A comment on the sugary, toxic digital garbage we shovel into our souls. Hateful online communities, money-sapping “games” and pictures so heavily filtered you wouldn’t even recognize the subject in public. We idolize the unknown, only to have it be someone like Kiya – a product of pressures coming from voices behind a monitor. Audiences push because we want to see someone break (the new-age Roman gladiator arena). That’s what gets views these days, isn’t it? It’s nauseating because it should be. Mashed cereal between teeth is no less disgusting than children who re-post Instagram pictures until they achieve the most likes, because self-worth is now measured in cartoon hearts.
Timlin turns in a provocative, wounded performance as Kiya, so caught up in her journey for stardom. She’s a loner who lives out of her car and struggles with human interaction. Larry Fessenden’s “prisoner” Marshall represents Kiya’s only real friend, but even that’s because he just doesn’t want to die (his own food scene is a testament Fessenden’s legendary genre status). As Timlin swings on a hammock, wearing a white wig and shredded stocking mask, her confidence is nothing but a cover for vulnerability. Follower numbers and commenter discourse spike her dopamine levels. Ian Nelson’s scathing hypocrisy as a master troll should reduce Timlin to tears (another oh-so-nasty, meaty performance), but instead, she views each take-down as a challenge. “Some dumb bitch with an iPhone,” proclaims Nelson’s basement dweller, as he notes that Timlin’s just trying to find fame before she “shits out a kid and dies of cancer.” It’s a triangle of intertwined souls who mirror the internet’s darkest reaches: the fame slut, the vile ogre and the victim. All real, and all brilliantly realized.
Mockler’s aesthetic is strong and performances are powerful, but there’s a lesser through-line for Timlin’s fiery arc. One of the YouTube commenters jokes about Kiya’s ability to get away with these “pranks,” which raises a fair point as police intervention is never an issue. Although, that can be laughed off – unlike sequences that are visual-heavy and thinly scripted. Like Me benefits from style, glamor and pinkish coloring, but needs a bit stronger narrative to break the next level. Needless to say, few films actually DO reach the next level I’m referencing, and for a feature debut, Mockler asserts himself as a creatively-driven madman whose vision blisters with illuminated curiosity. He’s going to try things, and that’s an exciting feeling. Please, do no leash this man.
The internet can be a lonely placed filled with temptation, and Like Me is just one warning scenario. A movie like Tragedy Girls plays a bit more on the nose, but writer/director Robert Mockler goes the more fever-dreamy route. Consequence echoes as loudly as actions, tracing back intent to typed words that some random username didn’t think twice about posting. Addison Timlin plays a systemic product, born from human desires that are warped into a crippling addiction. Feast on Nightmare On Elm Street inspired rooms and car rides through a jelly-floating vortex (very Willy Wonka-ish), but don’t lose focus. This is a cry for reassessment that needs to be heard. You know, before we’re electing presidential candidates based on their Twitter followers…