Gia Coppola’s Mainstream opens on Frankie (Maya Hawke) — an aimless twenty-something living in L.A. who bartends to get by but dreams of making it big on YouTube. The film introduces her using text-on-screen in a series of dialogue cards straight out of a movie from the Silent Era, harkening back to a time before everything was so loud. In her sophomore feature succeeding 2013’s Palo Alto, Coppola returns to the familiar creative breeding ground of disillusioned, self-destructive young people caught in the current of the cultural zeitgeist. This time, the environment is far more ravenous, more cutthroat, as murky suburban melancholy is traded in for neon lights, eye candy emojis, and like buttons. The plight of the young told through the lens of the carnivorous, sense-assaulting modern online influencer culture.
With its overly obvious moral anchor point of “those awful influencers we revile are not so different from you and I,” the film falls short of offering a refreshing angle on the controversial culture it skewers. Instead, it chooses a thematic entrée that Baby Boomers can easily consume, feels too pandering to Coppola’s own Millennial generation, and doesn’t say anything to Gen Z that they haven’t heard a million times before. Our culture is an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail. What’s new? Still, infectious needle drops, mixed media storytelling, a memorably obnoxious and equal parts irresistible performance from a bleach-blond Andrew Garfield, and overall enchanting and dynamic style make Coppola’s second film difficult not to get wrapped up in, even as its narrative simplicity bogs it down.
Failing to make it big via social media by herself, fledgling videographer Frankie meets Link (Andrew Garfield) — a charismatic, blond-haired, manic pixie dream boy who reviles cellphones and dresses up in animal costumes. He possesses the same snake charmer allure of Garfield’s paranoiac Sam in Under the Silver Lake. While sporting a mouse costume and handing out free samples of cheese for a restaurant nearby, Link adds some spontaneous flavor to Frankie’s filmmaking by making an emphatic scene in front of bewildered onlookers. After the video manages to gain traction, another chance encounter between the two gives Frankie the idea to collaborate with the beguiling, enigmatic Link. Though evasive and reluctant at first (“Do you wanna make art or chase affirmation from faceless strangers?”), Link impetuously whisks Frankie away from her grueling bartending job, and they begin their foray into the influencer world.
Alongside Frankie’s hopelessly-in-love former coworker and writer, Jake (Nat Wolff), the three begin making videos that mock the very culture they are now apart of. Under Link’s stage name “No One Special,” Link, Frankie, and Jake find quick success due to Link’s undeniable charms and the outrageousness of his acts. Their stunts include breaking into and being subsequently chased from the backyard of someone’s mansion and Link running around Hollywood Boulevard naked — save for a pair of flesh-toned underwear and a prosthetic penis, of course. No One Special’s brand continues to grow exponentially, gaining the three of them access to interviews with big-name influencers. This eventually leads to the representation of Mark Schwartz (Jason Schwartzman) and a YouTube-based game show called “Your Phone, Your Dignity,” where audience members are taunted by No One Special for their social media addiction. But there’s something suspicious about Link, whose initial unwillingness to lean into the social media world is traded in for self-serving psychopathy with far too much ease. The night of a graveyard party with No One Special at the center of the attention of a fawning crowd of internet fans, Jake witnesses Link engaging in a heated argument with a man he learns is Link’s brother. When Jake confronts Link the next day, he says nothing.
Like Palo Alto, Coppola is far more infatuated with artistic sensibilities than story, much of which can be attributed to the work of cinematographer Autumn Durald. Durald fuses the hazy, dreamlike atmosphere of Los Angeles, brimming with the tantalizing, monkey’s paw promises of fame and success with the suffocating, gaudy aesthetics of social media. At the same time, hypnotizing montage sequences spliced together by editor Glen Scantlebury utilize transitions that look like Instagram filters and mesmerize in the same way as quick-bite content. It creates a pop-art world that exists somewhere between our reality and another one, where a man like Link can achieve unfounded success at a pace that feels absurd even for our world’s insatiable standards. In peak insufferable dirtbag form, Andrew Garfield is embodying the charming, depthless sociopathy of Link with the same boy-next-door appeal that he brought to Under the Silver Lake. Maya Hawke carries the morally conflicted, success-hungry Frankie with the sort of assured, doe-eyed innocence that one might assume would come gifted with the genetic star-power fusion of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke — even if her acting chops fall short of truly standing out. Hawke is a capable actor (as previously witnessed during her tenure on Stranger Things), but the character of Frankie can’t help but play second fiddle to Link. Garfield makes a meal of the scenery and steals the show.
As No One Special climbs higher in the ranks of internet fame, the rise-and-fall-and-rise-again narrative of the film becomes not only predictable but thematically pandering. Influencers and the audience they cater to are naturally one and the same, our culture ever-fostering of an environment where such people feel compelled to sell their souls for brainless content that we are nothing short of eager to consume. And many of us may chide influencers and steer clear of their output yet still revel in take-downs of Twitter “main characters.” We cannot free ourselves of this cycle as long as we’re all engaging with it. In her effort to create a damning critique of the consumers and the creators of our modern online world, Coppola instead treads on a well-worn path. One that reeks of “old man yells at cloud” instead of creating something genuinely incisive coming from a Millennial director. The film culminates in a silly, moralizing diatribe from Link meant to instill dread that an audience would nonetheless applaud him rapturously for it. But I mean, of course, they would. We applaud the Links of the world every day. It is ironic, then, that while Coppola’s aesthetic skills as a filmmaker might be put to better use with a denser script, Mainstream ends up as fun, airless, and absorbing as the entertainment it satirizes.