“If you’re in a costume, it is easier to spot the other freaks.” That is what Link (Andrew Garfield) says at least. Link is quite the character, often engaged in work as a mascot for whatever local store needs the publicity. He clearly is indifferent to it, but his indifference doesn’t mute his charisma. An aspiring and directionless auteur working as a bartender, Frankie (Maya Hawke) notes this as she’s capturing a photo on the wall in the mall. Link espouses an inspired monologue on what makes art “art,” and the moment captured is too good to not upload online to YouTube. She does, and for a filmmaker who has had trouble getting interaction and views with her posts, this one is a hit.
Frankie is compelled to find this man again, who lives off the grid and is vehemently against most trappings of the 21st century. She does, and the more time they spend around each other, the more they share of their lives and how their partnership could lead to a fruitful gain. An idea comes in an eureka form for Frankie, who seizes to capitalize on the vapid Internet age by deliberately mocking it. She films it, Link stars in it transforming into a character known as “No One Special,” and her best friend, Jake (Nat Wolff), writes the hijinks. Their endeavors are hits, their lives and fortunes changed overnight, along with their morals.
The analysis of viral fame, what that looks like, how it is cultivated, and the lasting ramifications have been ideas that many movies over the last few years have ran with. Whether the compelling but slightly incongruent presentation of last year’s The Social Dilemma (albeit to a lesser level), the comically brilliant 2016 satirical mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the underrated PG-13 version of Funny Games in Nerve, or perhaps 2017’s underseen gem known as Ingrid Goes West (a classic in the book of yours truly), as our world further houses the potential for overnight breakout Internet stars, it is a ripe foundation for movies in the immediate and future. Mainstream is the latest stab at offering its own analysis on the trend. The punch that those other movies provided is lacking here, which is a bummer because it minimizes an unforgettable lead performance.
The film is helmed and written by Gia Coppola, the granddaughter of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola. After a traditional first 15 minutes of runtime, the younger Coppola embraces and stylizes her film with common flourishes of what one may see when watching the hit viral video of the day. With her editor Glen Scantlebury and cinematographer Autumn Durald, the trio lean on rapid cuts, intentional elementary-style animations often hued with neon tints, and the obvious framing of the action through frequency of the cell phone and video screen to tell their story. Paired with an eclectic score by way of composer Devonté Hynes (Queen & Slim), Mainstream is a sensory experience accurately tuned into the aesthetic and makeup of the thing it is mocking.
Mainstream entered and completed production in mid-2019. Not too long ago, but two and a half years in this day and age is a lifetime, especially since the bulk of those 2.5 years has been lived during a pandemic. You can’t plan and see into the future as it pertains to identifying what new/doormat thing is going to pop. That said, the problem is for a film like Mainstream with the proliferation of apps such as TikTok means that since it focuses so much on the medium of YouTube as if it is the only way people can get big online, it does feel a little…archaic? It is one of a few noticeable issues with the story at hand written by Coppola and Tom Stuart. No, it isn’t hard to follow, but hard to really be engaged with. Blame two of the three main characters being generally unlikable (Link is supposed to be, Frankie we’re supposed to connect and sympathize with, yet do not) with a half-baked romance built in, and/or just the realization that I’m probably not the target/relevant audience for this feature that doesn’t quite commit one way or the other to a stance. Is fighting the toxicity of viral social media with the same toxicity used to satirize it a win? A follow-up question to not being the target audience: With the film being so indie, will this ever get the exposure necessary to the people who may benefit from viewing most? Likely not.
The biggest saving grace of Mainstream is Garfield. He commits wholly to his character’s bit of believing he is the smartest person in the room while saying nothing of substance at all, gradually evolving from someone devoid of any social media to someone who you could never imagine going without it. The role requires a lot of energy and generally a propensity for looking foolish, and Garfield has churned out a performance that will never be one of his most watched, but will certainly be in the “underrated and underseen” conversation when discussing his career filmography. His co-stars in Hawke and Wolff are not as memorable here, chalk it up more towards nonexistent writing, though they also simply struggle to make any imprint on the movie whenever space is shared with Garfield.
More of a victim of bad release timing and a mild glut of better recent releases dealing with similar subject matter, Mainstream settles as a mid-tier niche film missing the story edge to be consistently referenced over time. Garfield is very special here, his feature is not.
Photo credits go to impawards.com, nme.com, theupcoming.co.uk, and elle.com.
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