Seven years after Gia Coppola turned a dreamily sympathetic eye on the pretty, youthful wasters of her high-school-set debut “Palo Alto,” she returns with “Mainstream,” packing a far smaller store of compassion and a lot less insight into the next micro-life-stage of telegenic wasted youth. A brittle, exasperated satire on social media celebrity, her sophomore film, like the tacky messiah it creates in Andrew Garfield’s YouTube sensation, soon becomes the very thing it sets out to expose: a glittery, jangly image machine that manufactures little of actual substance, except the conclusion that social media = bad. Sure, it’s a platitude [shrug emoticon] but hey, it’s delivered with attitude. [wink emoji; thumbs up; eggplant]
Maya Hawke (looking, in some of talented DP Autumn Durald Arkapaw’s more phantasmagorical lighting setups, uncannily like her mother, Uma Thurman) plays Frankie, a disaffected young bartender in a low-rent comedy club, where she works alongside aspiring writer and singer Jake (Nat Wolff, somewhat wasted in the muted role of pining best friend). During the day, Frankie slouches around L.A., absently filming little nihilist vignettes to upload to her undersubscribed YouTube channel. One of these clips catches a guy dressed as a mouse in a mall forecourt accosting passersby in front of a Kandinsky print, 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 mouseman is Link (Garfield), a scruffy curbside philosopher-prophet with a mysterious past and — astoundingly — 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 vacuity and vapidity of internet fame. You can see the existential issues this raises already.
Frankie and the very hyper Link (in a film with more bite, Garfield would be accused of chewing the scenery, and even here he gives it a good, committed suck) recruit Jake as a writer for their new project. Under the nom de guerre No One Special, Link performs stunts and pranks which Frankie produces and edits, all of which are designed to sucker viewers into following/liking/upvoting/sharing, and then to berate them for doing so. He quickly becomes successful enough to warrant an agent played by a very funny, scuzzball Jason Schwartzman. And even faster thereafter, Link morphs from affable if unstable young man larking about with friends to almighty obnoxious a—hole ruthlessly obsessed with climbing numbers, across the space of a single Day-Glo montage.
Despite the eye-jangling visual aftereffects (Snapchat flower-crown filters, retro-hip 8-bit onscreen graphics and Frankie vomiting up emojis that tinkle into a bathroom sink like a Vegas jackpot), despite the contempo stylings of Devonté Hynes’ pleasantly downbeat eletropop score, even despite the handful of real-life online celebs like Mexican vlogger Juanpa Zurita and Instagram guru Casey Frey who appear, “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 his regretful, shunted-aside svengali, Frankie. But this retro-resonance brings its own issues: It’s hard to make out if Coppola’s point is how very different — and worse — the era of influencer monetization, unboxing videos and makeup tutorials is from any kind of celebrity that has happened before, or how much it is the same. It becomes instead an attempt to plug 21st-century observations into a 1950s circuit board. Perhaps it’s no wonder the fuses blow.
That’s not the only anachronism at work. In “Palo Alto,” Coppola felt contemporarily connected to her characters’ lives; here she feels just slightly out of step, and in the accelerated world of the Extremely Online, even yesterday’s meme might as well have happened to the dinosaurs. Link’s online shtick takes the form of a kitschy game show. His big No One Special YouTube Special is a choreographed dance routine in a theater. Even his prank videos have, instead of the more modish TikTok-influenced self-made aesthetic, the look and feel of “Jackass” skits, an impression enhanced when Johnny Knoxville shows up for a brief cameo as a talk-show host.
A few years ago, “Mainstream” might have felt spookily prescient, but now, particularly given recent revelations regarding election interference and the sinister altering of socio-political discourse, 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, 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 intertitles, denoting Frankie’s state of mind. One of them reads, whimsically, “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 fickle, ephemeral nature of internet stardom by flaring garishly bright for a moment, and almost immediately burning out.