“What ‘The Influencer’ understands is that posting will not save us. Salvation has to come from elsewhere, if it will come at all.”
It’s impossible not to follow influencers. Despite our best interests, we’ve bought into the idea of them. A concept conceived in the 2000s, when MySpace and YouTube introduced us to the idea of a fascinating stranger who just can’t stop posting about themselves, influencing has become a career as sought after as reality TV star or millionaire entrepreneur (and what is it if not a Frankenstein’s monster of those two paths?). Meghan Weinstein’s debut feature The Influencer takes our obsession with wealthy internet socialites to task. Though it occasionally tangles itself up in its own web, it approaches its characters with sympathy and provides a convincing argument in favor of a healthier future of social media usage.
Real-life influencer Kasia Szarek (also from A24’s Pleasure) stars as Abbie Rose, an Instagrammer and YouTuber with a pink, polished, positivity-focused aesthetic. She shills products to her audience of young girls, even if she doesn’t actually use them, and brags about her lavish life to the camera. However, there’s something missing in Abbie, especially when we see her interact with her fellow influencer “friends” and we notice their cold, business-first distance with one another. There’s a sadness underlying Szarek’s performance that makes Abbie not only sympathetic, but likeable despite her career choices and bitchy behavior towards her interns.
But The Influencer is not a character study; it’s a thriller. After signing a sponsored partnership with Nutrocon, a notoriously corrupt beauty brand, Abbie is taken hostage by a group of anti-Nutrocon activists. They tie her up in her room and make her post things she usually wouldn’t in an attempt to tank the public image of Nutrocon or, more specifically, its place in the stock market. Such is the power of influencers, after all.
As the tale unfolds, we find out that the activist group isn’t as holier-than-thou as they claim to be, and the film becomes thematically muddied. There’s a twist that reveals ulterior motives behind the activists actions, one that is as monetarily motivated as Abbie’s Nutrocon spon deal. All but one group member, an intense grunt worker played by Shantell Yasmine Abeydeera, is there for the cold hard cash. It ends up being a tale of lost people, some more terrible than others, coming together to take down an evil greater than themselves for their own gain. Think of it as a sort of internet-focused Suicide Squad with lower stakes.
Weinstein clearly has a lot to say about the internet’s effect on humanity, but her point gets cross-wired when the stock market is introduced. Though the stock market isn’t wholly unrelated to influencer culture, as you could argue that both live or die by their reliance on consumer decisions, and holds relevance post-GameStop, the plot point in question is overcomplicated enough that a character explains exactly how it works via two minute video presentation. It stalls the narrative and doesn’t add anything worthwhile to the characters’ backstories. They were more compelling before we knew they were after a stock market windfall, when they were just activists looking to take down an unethical beauty brand. The assumption that most of these people wouldn’t do what they did had there not been a reward at the end sells the film short. Muddy ethical waters in a movie about activism and kidnapping are a given, but this wasn’t the play that made the most sense here.
Stock market shenanigans aside, The Influencer is smart entertainment. It evaluates why we post; it’s one of the few movies about influencer culture that really gets it. We post because we think it can do something for us. People will like us if we post, won’t they? What The Influencer understands is that posting will not save us. Salvation has to come from elsewhere, if it will come at all. It’s enough to make you want to delete Instagram altogether.
Directed By: Meghan Weinstein
Produced By: Brandon Don Heath, Meghan Weinstein
Cast: Kasia Szarek, Shantell Yasmine Abeydeera, Janeva Zentz
Release Date: September 14th, 2021
Available On: Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play (purchase here)