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I once read a treatment for a music video proposed by some experimental filmmakers. Their work seemed to defy words, so in the description, they simply wrote: “Never boring! Always interesting!” This is how I might partially sum up Robert Mockler’s directorial debut, Like Me, a vomit of color, sound, strobes, and milk — milk? Yes, milk — centered on a young woman, Kiya (Addison Timlin), who becomes addicted to the thrill of recording people humiliating themselves and then uploading the videos to her website.
Mockler seems to be striving for profound revelations about human connection (or lack thereof) in the digital age, but in a fiction that kind of meaning best comes from character rather than circumstance. (See: Ingrid Goes West.) Still, Timlin so fully embodies the role of the sociopathic Kiya that this often-gruesome buffet of wild imagery bathed in hot pink impresses even with a thin, nearly nonexistent story. And Mockler’s and Jessalyn Abbott’s artfully chaotic editing style, full of ultra-slow dissolves, double exposures, and scrubbed footage playing forward and backward in time like the image is possessed, elevates Like Me to video art.
Timlin showed up on screen like a fresh breath of air in Zach Clark’s Little Sister, one of the highlights of 2016. There she played a meek nun; here, she vibrates with anxiety. In the opening scene, Kiya dons a mask and holds up a drive-through convenience store — not to steal money or goods but to bring the cashier to his emotional breaking point on camera. Imagine a Winona Ryder circa 1994 type huffing with excitement as she peels out in the parking lot, the look of shock crossing her face blossoming into a tenuous smile.
Of course, within hours that video draws more than 2 million views and a horde of response videos — that’s how the internet works in movies. Mockler cuts these unnervingly realistic videos into the narrative in quick succession, so it feels like random people are commenting on and critiquing the metanarrative of the film as it unfolds. Most say inane things like, “This dude pissed himself!” and “Kudos to that girl” or “She should be ashamed of herself” with detached amusement. But one king of YouTube, Burt Walden (Ian Nelson), pops up with multiple videos instructing Kiya, the “attention-starved whorebag,” to slit her wrists, using the exact hyper-vocabulary that real-life MRA trolls adopt to feign intellectual superiority.
Cruelty begets worse cruelty. Kiya kidnaps an equally despicable motel owner, Marshall (Larry Fessenden), and records an assault of her forcing cereal and milk — there it is! — down his throat; Burt goads her into tormenting the man to even more violent extremes to prove herself worthy of her newfound internet stardom. If this film succeeds in revealing anything about modern life, it’s that the ubiquitous dudes of the internet who message women death threats more often than they brush their teeth are cowards who will forever demand more and worse — and then move the goalposts again and again to keep women barred from their fabricated worlds. Kiya is a formidable opponent for Burt, leaning into a maniacal nihilism that Timlin sells with terrifying zeal. It’s a wonder she hasn’t been snatched up for a big-budget drama somewhere, because it’s a rare talent who can play a whimsical nun and a terrifying, Lair of the White Worm–weird villain with equal believability.
Directed by Robert Mockler
Opens January 26, IFC Center