The mock-documentary is a largely played-out genre, all too often used as vehicle for cheap satire or puffed-up intrigue. In their intriguing, intractable debut feature “My Friend the Polish Girl,” however, directing duo Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek find some spiky new life in the form, using it to pointedly expose the narcissism and ethical shortcomings of many a self-styled, self-reflexive nonfiction auteur — and in turn, to metaphorically reflect on immigrant exploitation in Brexit-era Britain. If that sounds like a lot to take on, it is: Announcing itself as a truth-seeking character study of lonely, London-based Polish actor Alicja (in fact played by Aneta Piotrowska), the film grabs at so many thematic strands — further including toxic female friendship, urban alienation and abusive sexual manipulation — that it can’t substantially sort through them all. Still, the attempt is audacious and stimulating.
From its cramped, off-the-cuff shooting style (mostly in washed-out monochrome) to its persuasive ensemble, “My Friend the Polish Girl” mostly pulls off the documentary pretense with wily skill. Still, even viewers coming to it cold may sense something amiss in the introductory voiceover of our predominantly off-screen narrator Katie (Emma Friedman-Cohen), an American filmmaker in search of a human film subject with which to make her name: “I needed someone real, someone with a truth, someone hurt,” she says with deadpan glibness, sounding so much the stereotype of a parasitic doc-con artist that one can already sense the film’s perspective and its fictional maker’s are not set to be one and the same.
Either way, she finds exactly what she’s looking for in the coolly beautiful, 32-year-old Alicja, who has been living in the UK for 12 years without, it seems, establishing any kind of social circle beyond her mild-mannered British boyfriend Michael (Daniel Barry) — who regards the effortfully provocative presence of Katie in their lives with hostile suspicion. The more time we spend with Alicja, as she attends auditions for low-rent acting jobs, dolefully attempts to engage Facebook friends for coffee or idly hangs out in her North London shoebox apartment, the more it seems she and Katie may be well-matched sociopaths.
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Yet as the one wielding the camera over another hungry for its gaze in any context, Katie’s role slips all too easy from ally to exploiter: In a matter of months, Michael moves out and the filmmaker takes his place, with Alicja under her surveillance almost every waking hour, and probably a few non-waking ones too. An uneasy, gradually chilling centerpiece scene sees Alicja stripping for Katie’s lens, but what initially seems a mutually flirtatious tease morphs into a disturbing, dubiously consensual channeling of past sexual abuse. Is Katie simply in love with her subject, or does she secretly wish to break her? And is Alicja herself — evidently a gifted actor, though she can only get cast as a Russian hooker in a scuzzy crime pic — more in control than she lets on?
Banaszkiewicz and Dymek’s script presents the shifting balance of power between the two with winking ambiguity throughout: as a kind of “Single White Female” psychothriller turned elaborately inside-out, with the filmmaker as possessive stalker, the film is often witty and genuinely discombobulating. As an indirect allegory for British’s current breakdown in native-immigrant sympathies, however, the film is sketchier and less satisfying: Whether Alicja is being colonized, exoticized or actively bullied by the camera hard to determine from scene to scene, while the nature of Katie’s own outsider identity is scarcely touched upon.
More deftly, “My Friend the Polish Girl” marks the limitations of Katie’s perspective and human understanding through the affectations of her filmmaking: The film’s images are frequently graffiti-sprayed with modish but meaningless hashtags and emoji, as well as self-important chapter titles like “The Provocation” and “The Ending.” (Not the actual ending, naturally — such is the heavily meta self-consciousness of Katie’s auteurism.) If all these tics begin to grate even in quote marks, proceedings are frequently given a bracing slap across the face by Piotrowska’s superb, unsettling performance, which increasingly hints at real pain and sensuality behind Alicja’s chilly, impassive surface: a performance of a performer protecting her humanity, perhaps, from a camera she doesn’t entirely trust.