Like an open bar, the Internet can be an enabler for certain kinds of addictive personalities. “Me @ the Zoo” provides a cautionary tale as it chronicles several years in the endlessly self-recorded life of Chris Crocker, who won fame with his 2007 “Leave Britney alone!” YouTube rant. A little of him goes a long way, but there is undeniable fascination to this sketch of ephemeral celebrity and real-life dysfunctionality, as well as the arresting, experimentally tinged feature that first-time helmers Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch build around it. Adventuresome festival, theatrical and broadcast programmers may bite.Raised by long-suffering grandparents, as his mother, Tanya, was 14 at the time of his birth (their problematic best-friend mother-son dynamic is a major thread here), transgender-identifying smalltown Tennessee teen Crocker dropped out before high school due to serious bullying abuse. Left to his own devices, albeit with a vidcam and PC, he started posting clips of himself. Cross-dressing, lipsynching, role-playing or whatever, he was reliably over-the-top enough to gain a sizable fanbase and even launch a few catchphrases. That was nothing, however, compared to the frenzy unleashed when his tear-stained defense of pop star Spears, then in the midst of a highly public meltdown, went viral. Crocker became flavor of the week for latenight TV hosts, launched a thousand imitation and parody posts, and eventually was flown to Los Angeles to shoot a pilot for his own (aborted) reality series. But as much as his exhibitionism thrived on the attention, for every fan affirming his specialness there were myriad homophobes and miscellaneous haters Crocker proved incapable of ignoring. No wonder, since the Internet seemed his only social contact, apart from his mother, his hilariously no-nonsense grandma and a grandpa clearly experiencing the agonies of Job over all this ruckus. (Crocker evinces scant sympathy when his increasingly negative fame gets his grandfather exiled from his church.) When his 15 minutes are over, the subject — sporting a new goth-boy look — does well to wonder just what the future holds when the only skill he’s developed is as a vlogger. With very little footage here that’s not shot by Crocker, pulled from YouTube or excerpted from commercial TV, “Me @ the Zoo” (named for YouTube’s very first, innocuous viewer-video posting) is as much a long-form collage as it is a straightforward documentary. There’s no overt editorializing, though the content utilized does raise issues ranging from the rising role of advertising on “free” forums like YouTube to the fact that nearly everyone, not just extreme cases like Crocker, is spending too little time experiencing life offline these days. Rejected by his “redneck” geographical community, Crocker sought virtual companionship, but it’s doubtful that’s been very healthy for him, either. Ninety minutes of Crocker’s antics constitutes a portrait both exhaustive and frankly exhausting. But “Zoo’s” larger ideas and idiosyncratic assembly retain interest, with soundtracked music (original and pre-existing) hitting additional offbeat, intelligent notes.
An HBO Documentary Films production. Produced by Chris Moukarbel, Nicholas Shumaker, Jack Turner, Valerie Veatch. Executive producers, Vin Farrell, Rachel Grady, Jim McKay, Michael Stipe. Co-producer, Alex Mar. Directed by Chris Moukarbel, Valerie Veatch.
Camera (color, HD), Chris Crocker, Wolfgang Held, Moukarbel, Veatch; editors, Mourkarbel, Veatch, Jesse Haas, Matthew Sanchez; music, Nico Muhly; sound, Moukarbel, Veatch; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Ryan Price. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2012. Running time: 90 MIN.
Chris Crocker, Tanya Malone, Brenda Cunningham, James Cunningham.