“It’s a lot of fun, until it isn’t anymore.”
Shot completely using iPhones and Go-pros, Eugene Kotlyarenko’s latest film Spree should feel like a corny wake-up-sheeple, we-live-in-a-society gimmick; instead, it is a refreshingly bloody ride through a scary fun house. Designed to “make you laugh, and then grapple with it after you laugh,” to borrow Kotlyarenko’s own words, one would be hard-pressed to find an audience member who dared to call a ride share to their next destination after the screening.
The premise is simple but deceptive: Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery), also known as @KurtsWorld96, is a pathetic clout chaser who drives for the ride share app “Spree” who is so desperate to gain a large social media following that he becomes a serial killer and vlogs the whole entire thing with the many cameras outfitted in his car using the hashtag #thelesson. Like most vloggers, he aspires to rack up Logan Paul levels of clicks, with his obsession personified by his former friend and successful prank vlogger Bobby Basecamp (Josh Ovalle). “If you’re not documenting yourself, you’re nothing,” Kurt tells his minuscule following at the beginning of the story. He may be a homicidal psychopath, but is he wrong?
Much of the magic of Spree rests on the fact that Keery leans into the gross, greasy energy from the photo of him with a bowl cut that went viral a few months ago instead of away from it, breaking away from the cool guy energy of Stranger Things’ Steve. If Kurt was hot or even a little bit attractive, then he would have a trail of naïve fans mislabelling him as “misunderstood” (see: Ted Bundy Twitter), but he cannot hide behind his bad style, mediocre look and lack of hygiene, allowing for Kotlyarenko to expose the poisonous nature of constant social media addiction on the human brain. Kurt is the kind of guy who says “follow for a follow” out loud and posts twenty cringe-worthy vlogs a week, even though literally no one is watching.
Visually, the effect of the constant barrage of Kurt’s and everyone else’s social media livefeeds is incredibly disorienting and feels like it might have given me a migraine, but then again, aren’t I being poisoned by consuming everyone’s live feeds every day? I don’t even want to know how many hours of Instagram stories I watch per day, let alone the sheer number of tweets or Tik Toks that I scroll through. It is so easy to laugh at Kurt because audience members are both completely removed from him, yet his central experience of being addicted to online attention is also something that a lot of people deeply understand. All of Kurt’s Fleabag style glances into the camera are at once hilarious and embarrassingly relatable. Like Fleabag and like us, Kurt needs the constant validation of the audience’s gaze, or else he will cease to exist. If he’s not documenting himself, he’s nothing. He apparently does not have anything or anyone else. It’s a lot of fun, until it isn’t anymore.
The true heroine of Spree is a funny, talented black woman: the celebrated comedian Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), who worked hard for her success, zings off men are trash millennial style jokes, and has the misfortune of entering Kurt’s death trap.. Like Kurt, she is also lonely, and addicted to being looked at on social media by strangers; the main difference being that she is successful at gaining influence while he is not. Her strange encounter with Kurt makes her realize that they are not so different, and her follower count isn’t as personally fulfilling as she once thought. She delivers a monologue toward the end of the film that poignantly summarizes Kotlyarenko’s overarching thematic ideas for the film; although we want to believe that social media connects us together, it is largely isolating.
Keep your eyes on Kotlyarenko; he is a smart, gifted storyteller with a keen eye for the complicated, ongoing relationship between humans and the technology that binds us. He expresses these ideas in a non-linear fashion without smashing his ideas over your head. Run, don’t walk to see his anti-romantic comedy Wobble Palace (2018), which explores the effects of modern technology such as dating apps on a decaying long-term romantic relationship between a pair of Los Angeles artists. Instead of rooting for the pair to get together, you find yourself rooting for them to break up. His direction toes the fine line between being critical of his deeply flawed characters and showing an affectionate tenderness toward them because of those flaws. Spree marks his Sundance debut.
Dir: Eugene Kotlyarenko
Prod: Matthew Budman, Sumaiya Kaveh, John Lang, Eugene Kotlyarenko
Cast: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton, Josh Ovalle