by Kayla McCulloch on May 13, 2021

If there’s one thing the Coppola family of filmmakers understands, it’s this: One cannot rush perfection. Francis Ford Coppola, the patriarch (and, to an extent, the blueprint), proved this with his grueling Apocalypse Now (1979) shoot. Countless months of pre-production, a year-and-a-half of filming, 200 hours of footage, three years in the editing bay, and continued tinkering even 40 years later: The process might have been physically, emotionally, and financially draining, but it resulted in an irrefutable masterwork that remains unrivaled to this day. Sofia Coppola, Francis’ daughter, has never taken on such an impossibly daunting project, but her generous breaks between films and her refusal to be cornered into any one genre show a willingness to accept that creative endeavors take time and that any attempt to take shortcuts will not end well. Gia Coppola, Sofia’s niece and Francis’ granddaughter, has directed just two features since emerging as a filmmaker in 2010. Her latest, Mainstream, comes seven years after her last effort, Palo Alto (2013). Although it’s another exemplary instance of a Coppola adhering to their unspoken family virtue, refusing to rush may have actually kept Mainstream from hitting as hard as it might have.

Like many Gen Z teens, Frankie (Maya Hawke) just wants to go viral. For most who grew up without a screen positioned inches from their pupils before they even spoke their first word, the idea of hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — of people watching their every waking moment sounds like an actual nightmare. Alas, a recent survey of 3,000 kids from the ages of 8 to 12 indicates that the majority dreams of being a vlogger — not a teacher, athlete, or musician, but an individual who documents their day and posts it to YouTube. Sadly, although she uploads often, Frankie just can’t seem to attract any viewers to her videos. Everything changes when she discreetly records an eccentric Luddite named Link (Andrew Garfield) and uploads it to her channel.

Soon, Frankie’s video of Link racks up several thousand views — not a landmark achievement by virality’s standards, to be sure, but enough of a bump from her usual numbers to prompt her to quit her job and pursue content creation full time. Link is at first reluctant to embrace the thing he claimed to oppose for so long, but he quickly does an about-face at the prospect of getting his contrarian message out there. After roping in Frankie’s ex-co-worker Jake (Nat Wolff) to aid in the writing process, the trio sets out to create videos that are equal parts disparaging and absurdist. Their ludicrous style exists somewhere between the surreality of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (2007-13) and the obscenity of YTP edits, and it makes for the kind of peculiar performance art that’s hard to turn away from ... until the shtick starts to wear thin. As is regularly the case with famous influencers, it’s not long before the trio — uploading under the pseudonym No One Special —starts to see their once-skyrocketing numbers beginning to drop. Desperate to keep the views climbing, the three start indulging in true performative depravity.

Garfield’s performance in particular is a standout here. He operates as a manic pixie dream boy of sorts, overflowing with faux wisdom and empty platitudes about living life to the fullest, resisting society’s norms, and maintaining authenticity at all costs. Frankie is drawn to him like a moth to a flame, attracted to both what he does and what he can do for her. “Do you want to make art, or do you want to chase affirmations from faceless strangers?” he asks her early on in their endeavor. “Both,” she replies, nailing the inherent hypocrisy of influencer culture as we know it: Everyone says the same things in the same way, urging their followers to stay true to themselves and express their individuality as they slowly become a hollow parody of themselves. This is the course trajectory of Mainstream as well — perhaps by design, or because it arrives well after others have trodden similar ground.

In recent years, audiences have seen several cautionary comedies about fame and vanity in the Internet age — Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016), Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West (2017), and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018) are three successful attempts at tackling the absurd concept of the social-media celebrity, but they aren’t the only films to take a shot at the subject. Although Mainstream has arrived several years after these titles, it was more or less conceived concurrently. Coppola and co-writer Tom Stuart had a finished script in 2018, and it’s hardly their fault that more than a year passed between wrapping production and the film’s premiere in September 2020 and then another nine months before its limited release, but such delays don’t help the film’s commentary. The lag has effectively softened the film’s blows and dulled what very well could have been a sharp satire just a couple of years prior, when influencer culture was arguably at its apex.

It’s only been a few years since 2018, but there’s no denying that the conversation surrounding these social media stars has changed significantly. Each day brings a new figure’s stardom into question, and the once-untouchable titans — YouTubers such as Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star, and James Charles, TikTokers Charli D'Amelio and Addison Rae, and even names like the Kardashians and Chrissy Teigen — find themselves being held accountable for their insipid behavior and obscene levels of entitlement more frequently than they used to be. There was a time when they were impervious to critique among their Gen Z audience, and they simply aren’t anymore. Mainstream’s message sounds redundant today because of this steady cultural shift, but it still bears repeating for those who may not have gotten the message just yet.

Rating: B-

Mainstream is now available to rent from major online platforms.