starring Sara Canning, Emily Tennant, Cassandra Naud, Rory J. Saper
written by Tesh Guttikonda & Kurtis David Harder
directed by Kurtis David Harder
by Walter Chaw Much like the higher-profile Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, Kurtis David Harder's Influencer takes aim at Zoomers with a sharp eye for critical detail and an even sharper ear for cutting dialogue. It's plotted with machine-like precision and delivers a series of switches--and switch-backs--that aren't just amusing: they speak ironically to the very interchangeability of Influencer's stars that the film seeks to satirize. I don't know if this is intentional, but it's appreciated. I especially loved the subtle shots at both a culture that would "other" someone with a physical deformity and that same culture that would still "other" but "other for profit" the same deformity. That's some dour shit about the state of things, providing the film a bracing jolt of topical venom. It's not the murder and identity theft getting under your skin in Influencer, it's the full-frontal assault of the new beauty myth as it transitions from makeup conglomerates to social-media stars turning a side-hustle of self-objectification and narcissism into a six-digit lifestyle. There's a lot going on in this movie, in other words, though on its surface it's a fleet thriller with charismatic leads who manage to give their objectionable rakes a legible undercurrent of depth and humanity. Squint a little and Influencer is a sly update of de Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses, only one of the partners in this classist love triangle is eternally missing: a ghost in the worldwide machine.
Unsporting to reveal too much, the film is about a shockingly pretty cosmetics influencer (all the more so for her melancholy) named Madison (Emily Tennant) who's unexpectedly off to Thailand on her own when her empty-headed boyfriend/manager, Ryan (Rory J. Saper), drops out at the last minute. Drowning her sorrows one night at the luxury bar attached to her chichi spa/resort, she's saved from unwelcome male attention by streetwise CW (Cassandra Naud). Fast friends, the two talk of the silliness of men, the hollowness of fame and wealth, and the enervating plastic-fantastic of social media. CW is a big pusher of "authenticity," taking Madison camping, boating, and beachcombing "off the grid" in an attempt to help Madison break through to a more "real" version of herself. Madison, who has broken up with Ryan over Zoom, is more than happy to follow her new guru into the wilderness. There will be another influencer later in the film, Jessica (Sara Canning), a wiser and more vicious version of Madison (possibly what Madison will become, should she stay in the game), while Ryan, for all his apparent insensitivity, will prove himself to be at least loyal to the idea of love with Madison. This is one of those rare movies where a good deal of the pleasure is in the execution of the text. It's a little like an Ira Levin thriller in that way: While there's substance to unpack, there's also that first thunderclap of experience that's worth the surprise.
I will say that the cast is exceptional, portraying characters who are easily recognizable as representative of a generation of people it's tempting for us oldsters to dismiss. Those addicted to their screens, substituting physical interaction for the virtual kind--flesh-and-bone friends for avatars and screen names. Those creating new gigs based on technologies that didn't exist ten years ago. A Canadian dancer born with a large birthmark on her face, Naud is especially good in the film's most challenging role. She's obviously gorgeous, with a "defect" some would find at least distracting, and so it's tempting to project motivations on her actions towards the "perfect" influencers who cross over into her sphere of influence. But she's never the one to say it. Ryan offers at one point to help her into a career as an influencer as she's helped Madison, because people are into--there's that word again--"authenticity." Does that mean a woman unwilling to cover up a birthmark is in some way more authentic than someone who does? It's a difficult question; the answer is that whatever the philosophical ramifications of it, beauty itself is a kind of mutative deformity constantly exploited in a culture that has created entire industries on the promise of artificially replicating that same deformity. Naud is a conundrum in Influencer because she challenges our prejudices just by the fact of her. It makes us conscious of how we look and why. Her fascination is indictment. Madison, at one point, baldly states that she knows she's the star of this show, and then Harder directs our gaze to CW, and we realize that's not true.
Influencer, then, becomes this canny and morally slippery exploration of what objectification means and how it functions in our culture. These three women are aware at all times that men are looking at them--and aware, too, of why they are and how this can be both advantageous and dangerous for them. They profit from their appearance, and the film wonders if the reward is equal to the price they pay as objects of everyone's attention. Many sequences with CW find her by herself in her oversize apartment overlooking the ocean, away from stares of curiosity, admiration...sympathy, perhaps? How often have we thought, "Oh, what a shame she doesn't...," couching our intrusive disdain within the guardrails of good Christian charity. And yet, as an audience, we're looking our looks and thinking our thoughts. In turn, Harding and co-writer Tesh Guttikonda give these people we've categorized levels of cunning we didn't credit them for, social intelligence and problem-solving abilities that make the plots everyone's spinning for one another more challenging to execute. And there are plots galore: crosses and double-crosses; heists and murders most foul; and at the end of all that, one of those little movie smiles where an antagonist recognizes the brilliance of a mortal enemy and steels themselves for another round of chicanery. Influencers is strong stuff and a calling card.