The coronavirus lockdown has accomplished something surreal: It has put almost the entire country in the same position as a small segment of people known as NEETs, an acronym that signifies those “Not in Education, Employment or Training.” But who are these folks who don’t work, don’t study, don’t contribute to society even under normal circumstances?
Director Alex Lee Moyer asks the same question, but without the sensationalistic dimension the news media typically uses when covering the phenomenon, wherein young white men — a group for whom opportunity has traditionally been most accessible — have been checking out and moving back into the spare bedrooms or basements of their parents’ homes. A dizzying deep dive into that strand of the subculture who’ve managed to find one another on Twitter and anonymous message boards like 4chan, Moyer’s “TFW No GF” challenges what we think we know about the people behind the bigotry and misogyny being served up online, calling for empathy and understanding of trolls whose shtick amounts to denying that courtesy to others, often under the guise of “irony.”
It’s a disarming movie, consistently difficult to watch, both in style and content, stuffed full of words and acronyms you might not know — words like “incel,” a neologism short for “involuntary celibates” that describes dudes who want sex but can’t seem to get it for reasons beyond their control, causing them to lash out at others instead. The film’s tongue-twisting title connects this newly identified (but by no means new) sense of pent-up sexual frustration to an obscure meme, one sure to mean something to the demographic in question, but not much to the rest of us.
For example, the title, “TFW No GF,” is chatroom-speak for “That feeling when [you’ve got] no girlfriend,” a hashtag some sad-posters cite in their mock-suicidal rants. Others use it as a caption, paired with a character called Wojak (a rudimentary face manipulated into countless emotional configurations for online cartoons) who has become a kind of avatar for the incel community — a counterpoint to the relatively cheery, blithely oblivious Pepe the Frog featured in recent Sundance doc “Feels Good Man.” Even to media-savvy millennials, these cartoons can be hard to interpret; to previous generations, they’ll stump worse than The New York Times’ Saturday crossword puzzle.
At times, the film feels like a sloppy PowerPoint presentation, intercutting juddery-looking drone shots and Dramamine-demanding vérité footage with a barrage of screenshots and humor videos so quickly, it would make Max Headroom’s head spin. Remember the days when critics complained about MTV’s editing? That’s nothing compared with the way that Moyer — an editor of others’ indie docs over the few years she was assembling this debut — adopts the brain-straining lo-fi style of her subjects. With “TFW No GF,” she has built an elaborate, mile-a-minute super-pastiche that assumes a high level of media literacy from its audience, incorporating the work of such web celebs as Prince of Zimbabwe (creator of familiar Wojak animations), musician Negative XP (formerly known as “School Shooter”) and Egg White (whose angry parodies, such as “Alek Minassian,” can be harder to swallow than the nihilistic blackpill he’s always ranting about).
Those artists — for that is what they are, even if their work is off-putting and/or loathsome — flesh out the environment as Moyer focuses on five outspoken members of the incel community, whom she approached under the pretext of tracing the “TFW No GF” meme to its source. What she’s really doing is profiling them, however, tapping into their need for attention while withholding the judgment to which they’re so often exposed.
The first of the guys is a shy 20-year-old named Sean, aka “naughtsosweet,” aka “kierkebard,” who lives with his mom in Colorado. In Moyer’s early interviews, Sean comes off like one of those manifesto-writing Columbine kids, but she follows him long enough to see him hit the gym and get the girls. Small-town Washington-based brothers Charels and Viddy spend several hours a day posting incendiary comments and messages, trying to provoke a reaction (a Tweet depicting Charels brandishing two guns with the caption “one ticket for joker please” prompted law enforcement to seize his weapons). In El Paso, Kyle is so insulated from the liberals he trolls that he (claims that he) doesn’t believe such a thing as social justice warriors actually exist. And a super-brain New Yorker who hides behind the handle “Kantbot” shows an inexhaustible appetite for reading, but an almost absurdist way of parsing that knowledge online.
Quoted in such a way that it’s often hard to distinguish who’s talking, Moyer’s five interviewees represent a wide range of aptitude and education, but have in common a sense of wasted potential. Just think of all that might be achieved — the problems that could be solved and the vaccines invented — if they directed their energy toward the common good, rather than wallowing in their own misery. And yet, that’s not how society works. Ours is built on free expression, and their controversial output serves as a reflection of something very real and still largely undiagnosed in American society. Moyer addresses it as loneliness, but it’s more complicated than that, and one of the film’s strengths is the way it leaves that mystery for audiences to consider.
“TFW No GF” was originally selected to premiere in SXSW’s semi-experimental Visions category, where it surely would have inspired heated yet helpful post-screening Q&As. Instead, after COVID-19 forced the festival to cancel, it became one of seven films hosted by Amazon Prime in a 10-day virtual version of SXSW, launching virtually devoid of context into the very medium it was designed to investigate. While troubling for some (one columnist tweeted his revulsion while watching and was dogpiled by haters and homophobes on Twitter), piping the film directly into cyberspace seems fitting.
These provocateurs, who see themselves as pioneers of an fast-evolving form of satire, are often lumped in with the alt-right, when in fact their work is frequently designed to ape their opponents and obscure their true feelings — which is why they are so often misinterpreted, since outsiders are constantly taking them at their word. While I would argue that demonstrates the fundamental flaw of this emerging form of expression (what David Foster Wallace identified as the problem of irony), Moyers meets her subjects on their own turf, constructing such a complex portrait, it can be tricky to distinguish where she stands, thereby giving audiences room to make up their own minds.