When I watch a movie, I’m not trying to be online. This is a crucial aspect to the experience for me. I try to stay away from Twitter and other social media. When I’m watching a movie in the theater, I keep my phone in my purse; at home, admittedly, I’ll have IMDb on hand to double check an actor I recognize (like my dad does). But recently I’ve tried to make a more conscious effort to be on my phone as little as possible, regardless of where I’m watching a movie. The COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 saw my attention span finally take a substantial nosedive. Where I used to be able to sit through a movie at home and keep my phone commendably out of my hands (beyond looking up actors and other miscellaneous film credits), the excessive amount of time I began to spend on my phone throughout the empty days to barely assuage my chasm of despair broke my brain.
Keeping Twitter and movie-watching separate—in a similar church-and-state type deal—is something I feel very strongly about. And it’s something that I feel should be applicable to the movies themselves. Ironically, someone tweeted something I’ve always liked, a sentiment along the lines of this: A movie shouldn’t be written in a way that makes it clear that the writer spends excessive time online. I believe that screenwriters should take this sentiment to heart; being aware of what’s going on with Twitter will make your movie worse, because trying to capture what’s happening online is like trying to capture air with your bare hands. It makes it increasingly difficult to produce a film which successfully satirizes the social media landscape without feeling like nails on a chalkboard and like what’s being satirized is no longer topical enough for satire at all. This concept felt extremely apparent after watching two new social media-related films: Not Okay and Vengeance.
The former follows entitled, trust fund, twenty-something New Yorker Danni (Zoey Deutch), cravenly desperate for influencer fame, whose fib about an Instagrammable trip to Paris spirals into her becoming a terrorist attack survivor, advocate and, above all, celebrity. Not Okay is a dark comedy about the exploitation of survivor stories that never gets quite as dark or biting as it thinks it does (a sardonic content warning at the film’s start cautions against the film’s “unlikeable female protagonist”).
The latter is The Office star B.J. Novak’s directorial debut in a film he both wrote and (regrettably) leads, about a New York writer and aspiring podcaster who takes mistaken identity and the death of an old hook-up as a way to finally produce “meaningful” work (i.e. lofty ideas pertaining to America and the divide between its people). Vengeance is a movie about so much that it’s about very little; Issa Rae’s producer character tells Novak’s that his podcast is “so you it’s kind of everyone.” Maybe this quality is a little intentional, but it makes for a muddled and occasionally misguided film.
Vengeance and Not Okay are about the commodification of the self in online spaces; the constant race to make the personal universal as a way to profit. But this idea of “it’s so you it’s kind of everyone” paradoxically doesn’t translate in an approach to making internet culture cinematic. Vengeance isn’t specifically about Twitter, but it is about the culture of certain people who use it: Educated, liberal East Coasters. When Ty (Boyd Holbrook), the brother of Novak’s character’s dead ex-fling, refers to his small Texas hometown as a wretched stretch of land that he’d never leave, Ben replies, maddeningly, “That’s how I feel about Twitter.”
I rolled my eyes at this dialogue even if I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with it. But it was the act of saying it out loud that I bristled at. It’s a line of thinking that belongs to the hyper-niche communities that spend time online, that don’t reflect the majority of online experiences; that occupies bubbles which don’t exist anywhere else as soon as you log off. The challenge of translating the culture of Twitter and social media to film and television partly lies in its wild variance from person to person. It’s an experience so personal it can’t translate to the universal.
Everyone’s online experiences are radically different from one another in a space that is constantly changing. Arguments, dogpiles, topics of discourse and one day’s “main character” all have a brief shelf life. This doesn’t even account for most people in the world not even knowing what these things are. When a film is in production for at least a year, the internet’s short attention span makes these overarching moments difficult to capture. Something that once made for a hot-button issue in a topical screenplay is now something people have already forgotten about. Bodies Bodies Bodies attempts to skewer the superficial vanity of Gen Z “woke politics” as a self-destructive witch hunt, but it’s the relentless buzzword-dropping at the climax that backfires the film’s attempt at satire and pushes it into self-parody. Words like “toxic” and “gaslighting” are overused online, yet I can’t say I’ve ever heard them spoken in real life.
Then again, I’m an old and feeble 27-year-old. I’m online, but I’m out of touch. But it speaks to the aforementioned dissociation between online practices that Bodies Bodies Bodies doesn’t work for me. Is the satire of the film toothless to me because I don’t interact with Zoomers who say “you’re silencing me” out loud, or is it because I’ve already reached the point in my social media circles where even reading words like that feels outdated and annoying? This isn’t to say that the effects of social media culture don’t ripple out into the real world, but the films that attempt to tackle this culture run the risk of getting too lost in worlds that are too specific, too ephemeral and don’t reflect the experiences of the audiences watching.
And in the instance of Not Okay (written and directed by a 27-year-old, I should add), the desperation for influencer fame is depicted as a sort of over-embellished caricature without digging deep enough beyond it. Exploiting trauma for clout happens when facilitated by online culture. It’s very bad and there are real casualties (both literal and metaphorical). But despite the parasocial relationship between Danni and a real gun violence victim she befriends, the film stops short of meaningfully contending with either the intended satire or the sinister real-world effects of social media. But movies like Ingrid Goes West, Eighth Grade and The Bling Ring, on the other hand, effectively articulate the nuances of how the internet really, often negatively, changes how we think, feel and form relationships with others in spite of the varied hyper-specificity of our experiences. Not buzzwords, but behaviors.
In their efforts to capture the moment, Not Okay and Vengeance see that moment slip out of their reach. The most successful films about social media are the ones less interested in using words people recognize, turning one outraged corner of the internet cinematic or sensationalizing the pitfalls of viral fame. They’re more invested in how the inescapable presence of the internet has fundamentally changed who we are and how we move through the world. Twitter should be less of a relatable reference point in a film like Vengeance and more of an unspoken signifier of the way that website and others have altered our cultural DNA. Twitter might be a wretched stretch of land that I’d never leave, but you don’t need to say it out loud.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.