Social media is post-consumerism; a seemingly indecipherable nouveau capitalism. How the hell else are we supposed to interpret Like Me’s always bizarre and frequently unnerving scenes of near-mindless food shoveling filled with close-ups of messy chewing? Between Addison Timlin, Larry Fessenden and Stuart Rudin shoving junk sustenance into their gullets – and in one downright weird scene, Timlin aggressively forcing food down Fessenden’s throat after intimating at some sort of kinky, taboo sexual encounter – first-time writer-director Robert Mockler maintains a hyper-critical stance of social media consumption and production now expected of any upstart filmmaker or established auteur zeroing their crosshairs on the subject. At this point, it’ll be more refreshing to point out the spectrum of social media utility and overall goodness between the negative extremes – Ingrid Goes West and now Like Me – and the incredulous positive – ex. a computer-animated ex machina Twitter bird in The Emoji Movie.
Though despite the inherent ugliness of Kiya’s (Timlim) preferred methods of food torture, it is an arguably obvious metaphor played out with subtle wit. Sometimes Kiya is able to get the odd characters she meets to consent to eating the massive amounts of food she places before them, and other times she must resort to applying a little pressure, despite their reluctance to willingly ingest. With the few glorified snuff videos she films and uploads, onlookers use their own methods of production – cliché reaction videos – to express their approval or discontent with her content, shamelessly celebrating it and eating it up or complaining that their participation is merely due to its being jammed into their news feeds. Social media is a buyer’s market, but not everyone enjoys what the algorithm steadfastly suggests they swallow, meaning approval is a finite resource.
Like Me and Ingrid Goes West differently examine the concept of using social media platforms to seek approval, though while Mockler’s film arguably lacks the latter’s nuance – as little as that movie possessed, anyway – and biting humor, it boasts an even darker, more nihilistic worldview with its steady descent into psychopathy and bleakness. It’s fair to say that during its surreal, and at times oddly endearing road trip through neon-soaked, drug-drenched depravity, Like Me engages itself in a sort of post-horror, emphasizing pitch-black atmosphere over typical narrative beats and character arcs. While Kiya is a hyper-realized stand-in for misguided Millennial youth, even until the final scene, she remains a redeemable blend of an anti-hero and tragic figure. She is the epitome of a 21st century sociopath; a Patrick Bateman for the digital age, a storytelling destination where superficial engagement briefly overshadows perceived inevitability.
Ten minutes into the film, it’s difficult not to recognize its endgame, so the experience is predicated on Kiya as a protagonist and the places she will take us in addition to the film’s magnetic stylistic approach – visually speaking, Like Me shares Good Time’s propensity to contrast colorful neon palettes and lighting schemes with the unseen darkness of the kitchen sink underworld. Though the film is perhaps too transparent in its use of shock and awe visuals, jarring edits and hue combinations to foster viewer investment while symbolizing the clash between aspiration and madness, Mockler’s deft treatment of Kiya throughout the slow-burning 80 minutes warrants the genuine attachment it requests. Her progression, or rather descent, is depicted with delicacy, treading a fine line between stagnancy and gross hyperbole. Timlin plays the part with equal intricacy and naturalism, as well, quietly shedding light on Kiya’s humanity as she visibly spirals downward.
She arguably possesses more richness as a character than what the film has in the entirety of its social critique, though to an extent, perhaps that’s something we have to accept with the price at the door given Mockler’s chosen brevity. What’s most important is whether or not Mockler and Co. can create an adequately terrifying atmosphere within limiting confines, partially with the director’s philosophical contemplations though additionally with other facets like character work. The answer is occasionally yes, though mostly due to strong performances from not just Timlin, but also genre-vet and indie stalwart Fessenden, as well as its collection of disturbing episodes wherein Kiya manipulates her unwitting passersby for either sadistic pleasure or genuine human connection. Other times, though, it can seem like the film shoehorns gonzo immorality to justify its one-dimensional criticism of social media personalities, where the critique’s legitimacy is sometimes lost.
Yes, Mockler and Timlin do effectively humanize Kiya to an extent with their respective objectives as director and actor, but the nihilism made permanent by the film’s violent ending diminishes any attempt at emotional texture, as if to say social media influencers can never be more than ruthless, opportunistic savages at their core. The nihilism itself isn’t the issue, but rather the insistence to rest such somber tones on something which isn’t either a universally accepted or personal truth, and thus only works as a horror-type flick if you happen to agree. The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s ending works because of its signification of psychological trauma as a persisting wound that isn’t easily healed. Raw’s double whammy of a conclusion powerfully speaks to deeply personal and honest fears from its writer-director Julia Ducourneau about female sexuality bred by patriarchal misinformation regarding it. And admittedly, while Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls makes a similar point regarding social media stars’ covertly cutthroat agendas, at least that film firmly rooted itself in satire rather than realism to justify its heightened vision.
Only if you maintain a narrow perspective of Instagram and Twitter celebrities is Like Me’s ultimate harshness legitimized. It doesn’t completely hurt how solid a character Kiya is or Timlin’s performance of her, however, despite the philosophical misguidedness expressed by her final moments onscreen. And as slight as Like Me may appear, you can hardly call it “style over substance,” with just enough intent toward the latter to justify the former. It’s a sincere attempt to deliver a different sort of genre experience even if predicated on a cynical falsehood, and it’s just bizarro enough to sporadically widen your eyes and tilt your head in invested bewilderment. Mockler’s talent as a filmmaker is apparent and Timlin capably demonstrates her worthiness of greater things as a potential up-and-coming lead, meaning there’s every reason to give this one a crack. My lone request would be that you relent to it the way you ought to relent to the effects of a horse tranquilizer; don’t fight it.