The current age of wallowing in social media has become a trap for contemporary, eager filmmakers to try and Say Something. With each and every platform, they present all the topical ironies and iniquities in society at large, all too easily open to commentary and critique by artists who needn’t look further than the device in their hand for research. The problems that come with that, though, are the constant media shifts: by the time you’ve written your urgent script on the Twitter-era, it’s likely to already be a time capsule once the finished film hits theaters. The smart films in the subgenre get around these shifts by setting out to capture a particular place and point in digital time, rather than going broad. The Social Network remains the original gold standard of social media movies precisely because it tackled the origin of a change in the way we communicate, not the spastic outcome. But then there’s Gia Coppola’s Mainstream, an mixed satire on social celebrity that, like the tacky messiah it creates in Andrew Garfield’s YouTube sensation, soon becomes the very thing it sets out to expose: a glittery image machine that manufactures little of actual commentary, never feeling remotely ahead of the curve.
Maya Hawke stars as Frankie, a disaffected young bartender in a low-rent comedy club, where she works alongside aspiring writer and singer Jake (Nat Wolff). During the day, Frankie slouches around L.A., absently filming little nihilist vignettes to upload to her small YouTube channel. One of these clips catches a guy as a mouse in a mall courtyard accosting passersby in front of a painting, and when he realizes she’s filming him, he starts to play it up for the camera, eventually preaching an anti-consumerist screed to a gathering crowd and leading them in a chant of “Eat the Art!”
The mouse-costumed man is Link (Garfield), a scruffy, homeless philosopher with a mysterious past and no cellphone. Nonetheless, when the art-eating rant video goes small-scale viral, Frankie tracks him down and together they hatch a plan to become internet famous as a means to expose the empty-headedness of internet fame. You can see the existential issues this raises already. Frankie and the hyperactive Link recruit Jake as a writer for their new project. Under the name of “No One Special,” Link performs stunts and pranks which Frankie produces and edits, all of which are designed to sucker viewers into liking, following and sharing, and then to berate them for doing so. He quickly becomes successful enough to warrant an agent (Jason Schwartzman). And even faster thereafter, Link morphs from affable if unstable young man larking about with friends to the epitome of obnoxious, ruthlessly obsessed with climbing numbers. And Garfield delivers such a transformation as the film’s shining light: giving every ounce of fizzing, frothing energy he can muster. With the gurning gusto and elastic skydancer body language, he’s genuinely hard to look away from, delivering one of the year’s strongest performances so far.
Despite the cluster of social-media filters and 8-bit graphics and despite the handful of real-life online celebs who deliver cameos, Mainstream feels heavily indebted to Elia Kazan’s 1957 TV-fame-cautionary tale A Face in the Crowd, right down to the souring relationship between Link and the regretful Frankie. But this retro-resonance brings its own issues: It’s hard to make out if Coppola’s point is how very different the era of influencer monetization is from any kind of celebrity that has happened before, or how much it is the same. It instead becomes an attempt to plug 21st-century observations into a 1950s circuit board. Perhaps it’s no wonder the fuses blow. But that’s not the only anachronism at work, in Coppola’s first film Palo Alto, she felt contemporarily connected to her characters’ lives; here she feels just slightly out of step, fallings into the aforementioned problems of the shifting mediascape.
A few years ago, Mainstream might have felt prescient, but now the idea that the worst damage social media can do is to exploit the insecurities of vulnerable individuals or heroize the ravings of the occasional mentally unstable loner, actually seems a little old-hat. To be fair to Coppola, she does lightly acknowledge this time-clash paradox. One of the graphic affectations that (thankfully) disappears early on is a sprinkling of silent-movie-style title cards, denoting Frankie’s state of mind. One of them reads “Maybe Frankie is just an old-fashioned girl in a modern world.” The same could be wondered about Mainstream, an old film dressed in new clothes, that best evokes the ephemeral nature of internet stardom by flaring garishly bright for a moment, and almost immediately burning out. Even with an impressively go-for-broke Andrew Garfield performance, Mainstream is still imbedded within its own callowness and affectations of whimsy.
Mainstream is available on VOD