Logan Paul caused quite the scandal lately. For those who forgot, he's the YouTube star who uploaded a video from his sojourn in Japan, detailing a trek through the infamous Aokigahara “suicide woods” near Mount Fuji. Amongst the trees, Paul stumbled upon the corpse of a victim - a man who’d recently hung himself. The vlogger showed the body, and then laughed off the entire event, later apologizing and saying that he deals with trauma "through humor". Many mocked the kid; while others wondered aloud if this wasn't an opportunity to study vlogger culture, devoting some serious time and thought to the forms of social media that millions upon millions not only derive entertainment, but legitimate self-help from. Everything from makeup tutorials to depression aids are available for those looking for a voice to guide them, while others log on just to skewer these self-produced pieces of micro-expression in the comments section. Analyzing media that's engaged with on such a widespread level cannot be a bad thing.
Writer/director Robert Mockler's Like Me decides to skip the critiquing entirely, jumping headfirst into confronting those who’ve built a space in this digital arena that acts as their stage, a plug into the public consciousness for whatever fucked up desires have consumed their brains. From its opening scene - where the papier-mâché-masked social media broadcaster Kiya (Little Sister's Addison Timlin) holds up a convenience store and forces the vulgar clerk (The Battery's Jeremy Garnder) to piss himself - we're viewing fractured moments through a screen. As the midnight-shift townie screams, begs, and cries, the mask allows our girl to dispassionately put her cell phone behind the silenced gun she's brandishing for him to see. It's made abundantly clear that the device is extending the audience beyond these two, transmitting into a verified psychosphere until she dashes back into her car and drives away.
If this prank is the first piece of art in Kiya's online gallery, then the commenters and reaction videos are her critics - screaming their thoughts and feelings into the void to try and even come close to matching the 950,000+ views she's generated via the act of drive-by terrorism (which, admittedly, didn't end in a robbery or murder). The harshest hot take comes from a fellow YouTuber with the single moniker of Burt (Ian Nelson) - an acidic prince of suburbia who hisses for her to cut her wrists (and make sure to slice the right way). His words burn into Kiya’s eyes as she watches from inside her spartan room, setting the girl off on a road trip across the country, filming the whole way to obtain the validation of strangers in this neon-soaked anti-reality. We're never given a backstory or a sense of her family history. The only info we know about Kiya is from this trip, and the videos she films, as Mockler allows the audience only slightly more access than her haters.
Like Me is Natural Born Killers for the post-YouTube epoch, savagely existing in a too bright purgatory between fame and normalcy. The ceiling of a motel room Kiya rents from fume-huffing Marshall (indie horror maven Larry Fessenden, who also produced Mockler's insane vision) is painted with fake blood, and vintage furniture is crammed into the corners. When she invites the manager in for a possibly ill-advised tryst, she ends up zip-tying him to the bed and swinging above his head in a hammock, before force-feeding him junk food until he vomits. The crimes she commits and films are innocently non-lethal, allowing her to remain somewhat accessible to online peers. Yet once she kidnaps Marshall and piles him into the trunk for the rest of her road trip, it turns out these two just might be lonely souls who've collided into each other like cosmic molecules. Or maybe the motel owner is simply experiencing a bout of psilocybin-tinged Stockholm syndrome, a minor diversion before he decides to off himself.
As good as Timlin is - and she's really, really good as the self-minted icon of digital rebellion - Fessenden steals the entire movie out from under her as Marshall. Equal parts melancholy and sleaze, he slowly gives in to this hallucinogenic journey, all while injecting moments of tiny truth into the proceedings. Were this an actual drug trip, Marshall would embody the hidden inner monologue that appears from time to time after the peak - whispering about the worst things you've ever done, while simultaneously giggling at how your surroundings keep shifting. It's a dynamite performance that reminds you of the stellar work he did in his own micro-budgeted horror films during the '90s, now playing godfather to a new generation of weirdo mavericks like Mockler.
And what a truly bizarre nightmare Mockler has crafted, as we never feel like we're experiencing a plane of reality quite like our own. James Siewert makes his feature debut as a cinematographer, and Like Me should be earning him job after job once producers lay eyes on it. Each frame is sharp and colorful - a wave of garish primary blues and violets that transform every scenario into a poster-ready tableau. Inserts are cut together and bombard us with reactions to the events, as well as Internet representations of how our YouTube Bonnie (and her captive Clyde) feel from moment to moment. Layered on top like glass-laden birthday cake icing is Giona Ostinelli's mix of portentous drones and hypnotic ambient compositions, a glimmering soundtrack fit for this otherworldly trip to the other side of oblivion.
No spoilers, but Like Me ends with Kiya's emotional response to her most heinous act - a fictional mirror to the Logan Pauls of the world, desperate to try and understand the drive that causes some folks to do anything and everything, just to earn a few more lonely clicks. Kiya's journey isn't an easily sympathetic one, nor is it judging her for all her awful impulses. Instead, Like Me presents her and Marshall's trek for you to consume and then process your own gut response, before (more than likely) transmitting it into a personal sphere of influence, however broad or limited it may be. It's a challenging, complex work of confrontational art, announcing the arrival of a talent who should be producing stellar work for years to come.
Like Me is in select theaters this weekend, and on VOD February 20th.