On chewing your food, finding your audience, and the internet as a weapon of choice
Like Me Kino Lorber
Director: Robert Mockler
Screenplay: Robert Mockler
Starring: Addison Timlin, Larry Fessenden, Ian Nelson and Jeremy Gardner
Not rated / 1 hour, 23 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
The ordinary, in Like Me, can be elusive. Almost imperceptible. Kiya - the eponymous "me" - prefers it that way. Ordinary is ostensibly her canvas - it's just that her inclination is to cover every inch of that canvas until it's only recognizable in the abstract. As an abstract.
That her wayward acts of creation are so banal in their uncut form is at the heart of the film's savage sense of humor, implicit to its pronounced chasm between reality and self-constructed reality. Its most important juxtaposition takes place between what we see her record and what those recordings become. The images viewed through her cell-phone camera - or through the bulkier, old-fashioned video camera she sometimes uses instead - contain the unavoidable plainness of real life. But that's before those images have become weaponized. Transformed into a neon expressionist crime spree. Kiya's footage, as captured, is unassuming; it is she who activates it, giving it shape and color and vibrance and imagination. She lights it on fire, then leans back and watches her DayGlo inferno take on a life of its own.
Like Me itself straddles the line between being Kiya's art, and observing it from outside - or rather it vacillates between those two modes in deliberate contradiction. Part active hallucination, part transgressive statement, Kiya's compulsively cultivated social-media presence is a warped fantasia in which the utterly trivial sits comfortably side-by-side with the utterly depraved. A direct descendant of Natural Born Killers and a distant cousin of A Clockwork Orange, the film is a dazzling feature debut by writer/director Robert Mockler, who indulges his anti-heroine's violently surreal impulses as the artistic flourishes they are, and without sermonizing on the evils of her behavior. From convenience-store stick-up girl to avant-garde foodie; from barely-legal honey trap to kidnap-and-murder plots; from diners and motels to the psychedelic open road of the fugitive life, Kiya's camera is an instrument of violence and confession, and Mockler is here to bear witness. After all, what good is a social-media performance without a rapt - or, better yet, disapproving - audience.
Incidentally, this is one of the only films of the internet / smartphone / social media era to actually express anything about any of the above. Those ubiquities have been organically ingested into contemporary cinema, but more as a rote practicality than a source of reflection or interrogation. Online existence - and the behavior it engenders and rewards - can be such a profoundly singular frame of mind, but few movies have bothered to tap into it, or known how. Like Me does not spend most of its time engaging with social media in any direct way, but captures the mindset that has created, propagated, victimized and validated this otherwise inscrutable young woman. She is its loneliness and its madness. Mockler gets under the skin of who she is and even why she is, but doesn't offer a convenient psychological profile to detail or underline it.
In ironic defiance of its title, Like Me doesn't offer a clean judgment of the character, nor does it ask us to feel any specific way about her. Addison Timlin's enigmatic lead performance matches that approach, the intent concentration in her gaze both captivating and withholding. Though she propels all the action and is responsible for the entire narrative, she has the manner of an observer. She watches herself being watched.
The film is at its weakest when it brings internet culture more directly into the equation. First, it's with montages of social-media reaction videos and prepared responses to Kiya's increasingly popular feed - which, while not "closing credits of The Boondock Saints"-level infantile, still makes the film seem more tritely literal-minded, if only temporarily. It may be necessary to take us, and Kiya, out of the film's trance and interact with the audience to which she is performing and responding, and the world that she's provoking and reflecting. But as a filmmaking choice, it brings everything down to a more obvious level; the movie is at its best when indulging the hallucination, becoming a comment of its own rather than simply documenting other people's responses.
That feedback and backlash eventually narrows down to one particularly zealous viewer, who becomes her most prominent challenger. Burt (Ian Nelson) follows each of Kiya's posts with a response video laying waste to what he considers - or pretends to consider, or has decided to consider - infantile provocations. Nelson's performance is weak, but his scenes open up a space that nothing else in the film is capable of accessing. His snarky critiques are the one thing that garner an overt emotional response from her; she's otherwise so restrained, no matter what criminal act she's in the middle of. It's remarkably astute on Mockler's part - the idea that what sets Kiya off, the only thing that sets her off, is opposition. No, rejection. Anger or outrage she can handle - but someone daring to attack her like Burt does, after she's put herself out there, put herself on the line? This is unforgivable. Anyone who's seen the way people online respond to opponents - obvious trolls in particular - will easily be able to recognize the authenticity of this narrow form of lunacy.
But back to Kiya's, shall we say, accomplishments. That the film begins at one of the most infamous roots of social-media culture is one of my favorite of Mockler's touches. A decade ago, the running joke about Twitter's frivolity revolved around people taking photos of their meals. Cataloguing our lives through our various breakfasts, brunches, and late-night deliveries. Like Me pushes that very-real online tendency to an unabashedly absurd extreme, with Kiya's videos getting up close and far too personal - extreme close-ups of biting, chewing, slurping. Teeth and tongues and lips and gums, repeated and rewound and looped under unnerving neon lighting. Chewing your food as an act of insolent performance art, those demonstrations cut together with rotating selfies and Google image snippets to form a sort of Dadaist self-portrait.
At one point, she invites a homeless man into a diner, orders everything on the menu and makes him eat it all. This becomes a pattern for her as well - forced eating. When she entraps motel manager Marshall (Larry Fessenden, looking his most Jack Torrance-ish) with promises of sex and handcuffs him to the bed, she proceeds to force-feed sugary foods into his mouth until he chokes, or vomits, or both.
It doesn't kill him - at least not yet. Instead this becomes the start of a beautiful friendship, of sorts, between Kiya and Marshall, whom she kidnaps and takes on the road - a toy to play with and a perpetual audience of one, more than willing to give her his full attention. After all, he's something of a creator, too - personally responsible for designing and painting the rather magnificent interiors at the motel where these two first met, each room with its own style and theme. (Assuming these were not real rooms discovered by a location scout, huge kudos to production designer Colin O'Brien.) As the film floats along in its dreamlike haze, Mockler indulges more and more of his surrealist impulses. When the characters stop in the woods to camp for the night, the campfire they build transforms, permanently, into a pile-up of old tube TVs, with their bright and blazing static illuminating our outlaw and her hostage, as the forest behind them hovers in a haunting red. The brightness of those screens is just a tease, of course. Like Me is an electrifying experience but an oddly sad one, namely in the way it captures certain dichotomies of modern communication: Solitary confinement and mob; celebrity and stranger; one alias at odds with another. A citizen of the world yet agonizingly alone. Or, worse yet, misunderstood.