The internet is a vast, wild thing. To designate it good or bad is to minimize its scope, to disregard its power, to smash it down into something beyond recognition. It’s true that it entered our lives so fast that none of us thought responsibly about the claws it dug into us, but that simply makes it like so many things that have altered the course of human history: enticing, haphazard, thrilling, and prone to exploitation.
Mainstream, though, is here to pass judgement, and it hands down a broad, overreaching ruling that isn’t specific enough to chill. It wants to be a great conversation piece, to be held up as biting commentary on our vapid, manicured culture, a Black Mirror meets Ingrid Goes West satire that sucks us into a nightmare. But it just…isn’t any of that, and the blame for its failure can be spread around.
The general off the mark-ness must be laid at the feet of director/co-writer Gia Coppola and co-writer Tom Stuart. They came up with the concept and molded it into a (supposedly) tragic arc, and it’s clear they don’t understand the dangerous allure of the internet and aren’t even that interested in it. If they were, they would’ve given us characters with a particular draw to or disgust towards this fraught new environment. What they’ve done instead is give us cookie-cutter outsiders, the art with meaning chasing Frankie (Maya Hawke) and the social norms busting Link (Andrew Garfield). Their early scenes together, where they navigate the malaise of young adulthood and find a spark in each other’s contrarianism could be transported to any time or any place. They’re the classically appealing pseudo-intellectual alternative people, and their early scenes work because the formula is tried and true and the chemistry between Hawke and Garfield has a casual charm.
It’s when the internet comes into play that their characters fall apart, and unfortunately that is the bulk of the film. Link’s aversion to carrying a smartphone is never explained and is hinted at being a false front. Frankie’s interest in meaningful art is never offset by a particular disgust for the empty content she sees around her. Their inadvertently modest viral success, a video where Link goes off about a disregarded painting in the middle of a mall, excites both of them enough to think they could critique the culture from the inside, and off they go with the help of their even more generic writer friend Jake (Nat Wolff) on infiltrating and taking down from the inside.
The vagueness about what precisely the trio are trying to critique or where they exist within internet fame is another tip of the hat that Coppola and Stewart don’t have a grasp on this material. Good cultural commentary is specific and comes from a shrewd understanding of the dangers at play. Ingrid Goes West was about Instagram and the beautiful, no problems fantasy world many of its greatest stars embody. Black Mirror piecemeals its critique from episode to episode with no one outing trying to have the end all be all message. Mainstream posits a YouTube star with a particular aversion to smartphones and the way we present the best version of ourselves and how we chase positive reinforcement from strangers and generally internet bad. It’s incredibly out of tune with the particular dangers of YouTube and isn’t even good at capturing the pseudo-reality so many of its stars thrive in. If Instagram is the internet’s glitzy showcase, Twitter its cruel id, and TikTok is…whatever it is (I don’t use TikTok), then YouTube is its faux-reality, one that has long lifted up vloggers and DIY-ers who are just like you. This is, of course, a false presentation, with the organization and equipment required to be a star on YouTube being a major barrier to entry, but any critique of this particular aspect of YouTube is not to be found in Mainstream.
Instead, the most specific critique we get is about the kind of people who become its stars, and even that is left too vague to bite. Throughout the film Link is a bit of a mystery, a bubbly, big energy charmer that seems to have dropped into the world from thin air. He spouts empty platitudes and careens so fast you’re supposed to barely have time for suspicion, but Garfield’s portrait isn’t meted out correctly. His energy is a bit too twitchy, the offness of his character becoming apparent too early, making the twists and turns Mainstream tries to take you down signposted far in advance. That Hawke’s Frankie sticks beside him becomes an act of obstinate denial of his grotesqueries, which in and of itself could’ve been an interesting critique of the fandom YouTubers gain (Jake Paul, a controversial YouTuber in real life and a figure not dissimilar to Link, even appears in the film), but again, the thread devolves into a generalized sense of letdown instead of a specific observation.
As much as the movie wants us to think Link and Frankie are going down some modern day black hole, the problems they face are ones they could’ve been sucked into at nearly any time with just a window dressing change. And that imprecision is bad social satire.
Release: currently available in select theaters and on VOD
Director: Gia Coppola
Writers: Gia Coppola, Tom Stuart
Cast: Maya Hawke, Andrew Garfield, Nat Wolff, Jason Schwartzman