In the early parts of Mainstream, it appears that producer, director, and co-writer (with Tom Stuart) Gia Coppola was really anxious to make her own version of Aunt Sofia's The Bling Ring. It is not very good at this, and also, by the time the film's glacially-paced 94 minutes are over, this will seem like the closest the movie has ever come to actually engaging with recognisable humans or anything that feels like a real emotion. For this actually doesn't turn out to be anything like The Bling Ring at all; instead, it's an update and mash-up of the TV satires A Face in the Crowd from 1957 and Network from 1976, all prettied up for the age of the social media influencer. This isn't a bad idea, though even in its best form, I can't imagine it's an idea I would have much personal interest in.

Mainstream is not, to be as clear as possible as early as possible, the best form this idea could take. It is, indeed, somewhat dreadful, not least because it is unclear from the movie that Coppola actually has ideas about influencer culture beyond "it seems pretty gross" - at the very least, the film's satiric attack on internet stardom and the extremely online doesn't offer much in the way of specificity. Or rather, it offers a kind of hyper-focused specificity that doesn't really apply to anything other than the exact embodiment of influencers, in the form of YouTube-based vloggers, that Coppola and Stuart seem to have a particular bug up their ass about. This does, I would suggest in passing, point out a problem that goes beyond Mainstream and applies to pretty much anything that wants to comment on How We Use Social Media Today: it changes too damn fast. The authors of this script have a very particular kind of social media phenomenon in mind, and by the time their script went  through the pre-production and production and post-production processes, that very particular kind had absolutely nothing to do with social media as it exists in the world that the film premiered into, when it bowed at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. And perhaps it never did, but let us be charitable. The fact remains that the Mainstream that actually exists feels mortifyingly dated and out-of-touch, a criminal flaw for a movie whose entire identity is based on trying to hold up a mirror to its audience.

The moral of the story is thus, "make your social media satire about generalities rather than specifics, and also probably don't use the actual names of actual platforms", but that doesn't help us deal with the film Coppola has shat out into the world. That film is pretty much a top-to-bottom train wreck, shrilly and smugly wielding its superiority over its subject, without actually doing much to define that superiority: I get that the film has very passionate opinions, but I'm not really sure why it holds them. In some cases, I'm not even sure what the opinions are; just a free-floating "it's bad! Don't you see how bad it all is?!" that doesn't always pick a concrete "it".

Initially, at least, it's a much more compact and watchable, albeit glib and hip, story about young Angelinos hustling. Frankie (Maya Hawke) is employed as a waitress at a horrible bar where part of her job involves serving as a prop in the ghastly stand-up/magic/I don't know what kind of act that goes on there. In her off-hours, she films things, and one of the things she films is Link (Andrew Garfield), a costumed street performer who, inspired by Frankie's camera, goes on a rant where he urges people walking through an outdoor mall to pay more attention to their surroundings and stop being such tunnel-vision consumerists. He is wearing a rat costume as this happens, and the film puts some awfully cute energy into using this as foreshadowing, in its extremely tiresome opening, which uses silent film-style intertitles to introduces Frankie and her yearning to be be bigger than just another L.A. waitress. This is a conceit which the film has lost interest in after the five-minute mark, which speaks to one of Mainstream's persistent problems: it has a lot of style, and indeed a lot of different style, and it doesn't have the smallest strategy for employing it. So sometimes we get very deliberately stiff, flat rectangular compositions using wide-angle lenses; sometimes we get high-speed montage sequences; sometimes we get wobbly handheld camera; sometimes we get presentational, theatrical staging that treats the camera as a fixed point for the action to pivot around. Among other options, all of them just pressed into service wherever and whenever.

Back to the story: Frankie's video hits bigger than anything else she's ever posted, without necessarily going "viral" per se, and that's enough to give her a taste for the bigger things. Reasoning that Link's caustic, and apparently sincere jeremiad against modern culture struck a nerve, she works with him to build that into a full-on star persona, in which he appears as a kind of chat show host from Hell named No 0ne Special, where he screams into the void, and into people's faces, about the horrible ways that social media is killing our shared humanity. Eventually, the two of them hook up with new media promoter Mark (Jason Schwartzman), who helps push No 0ne Special into the B-tier stratosphere, and only Frankie's friend and potential romantic interest Jake (Nat Wolff) is there to caution that this Link fella seems kind of excessively horrible and toxic.

Mainstream is built around a tension it never resolves, presumably because it doesn't notice it: the film itself is openly contemptuous of social media influencers, and it puts all of its most piercing arguments in the mouth of a man it views as a sociopathic lunatic, played by Garfield with genuine demonic energy. This renders the satire at least confused and at worst actively incoherent: we're both meant to agree with Link and be repulsed by him, and it's not ever clear how the movie wants us to square that circle. Its satiric edge would anyways be blunted by its excessively proud embrace of the world its dissecting: it even has real internet personalities show up as themselves, which reduces its bite to a gentle little love nibble. Fuck, it has Jake Paul cameo as himself, in a movie that is as much as anything a direct attack on Jake Paul specifically. Not, obviously, a very successful one.

But while that tension would undoubtedly always hobble Mainstream, it's really just one in a swamp of reason that the film is no damn good. I have mentioned that it's messily directed, and dreadfully paced; it's also extremely bad at letting us know who its characters are, outside of their most robotic function within the context of the plot. This is least of a problem in the opening thirty minutes, which is, again, the best part of the film and by quite a huge margin, too; there's something irritatingly quirky and hip about Link and Frankie's pseudo-flirtation and the "how do you do, fellow kids" cadence to their dialogue, but at least the material is sound. It's basically just a roughly shot, crudely staged (both of these in a good way) look at the kind of people who are trying to work the industry to find whatever scrawny measure of fame they can wring out of Los Angeles, on the grounds that even ugly, sordid fame is still fame. Coppola and cinematographer Autumn Durald are using one pretty consistent aesthetic for most of this, wide-ish shots and soft lighting, just a bit too crisply composed to feel like docu-realism, but basically trafficking in that kind of scruffy "just set the camera down" style. It works, anyway, and it's also good for the film that this is the only time that Hawke has been provided with recognisable emotions and motivations, and under those circumstances, she turns out to even be a pretty good actor. She's not equipped to deal with the curves Mainstream throws at her later on; the film always theoretically positions her as a protagonist, but it is clearly more interested in Link's baroque parody of humanity as it goes along, and that leaves her with very little to do besides stand in the midground of shots and try to pull attention.

That all gets us, anyways, to the two things Mainstream actually has that are genuinely very good. Garfield is one of these: Link is a badly-written and erratically-conceived figure, but the actor flings himself at the role without a trace of restraint or embarrassment, from the indescribable thing the hair and makeup department have done in giving him pasty blond highlights on down to the bug-eyed grins and grimaces he sports during No 0ne Special's various stunts and bullying tactics. It's a devouring, hammy performance, insisting that the audience give him all of its attention and then making us feel sleazy for having done so, but this is awfully close to how the script conceives of his character, and  the potency of Garfield's acting at least manages to provide a consistent take on the character and, by extension, the movie that increasingly becomes nothing but reactions to that character's id.

The other thing is the soundtrack. Either Coppola, or music supervisor Rob Lowry, or both of them, has pretty fine taste, at least for creating a sonic blanket for this movie's hazily poppy, cynical take on culture. I'm not in a position to say if this is actually hip, or if it's try-hard "look I have hip taste" posturing that's the same five years out of date as the conception of social media, but it works for the movie either way, and it provides a lot of energy that the inconsistent visuals and choppy cutting don't. So if Mainstream feels like it's moving forward at all, it's doing so mostly because the music is pressing it on. Probably not the kind of thing I'd feel obliged to praise in a movie that had more things that were actually working, but given what a drab slog through screeching, inscrutable social satire the rest of Mainstream is, a good soundtrack is much appreciated.