There’s a constant argument between generations about who had it worse vs. who had it better. The “always on” digital generation may scoff at the concept of their predecessors’ reliance on books for information, while the analog generation derides their descendants for almost always being plugged in. The one thing both are inclined to agree upon is the darker side of the Internet which arose to meet the light. Where there is good discussion of ideas, a troll emerges, ready to derail the conversation for their own amusement. Where there is a means to share private thoughts or personal creations, a provocateur is ready to take advantage. Where there are images of children at play, a deviant sees an unsupervised playground. For this specific reason, some parents opt to keep their children off the Internet entirely in some vein hope of trying to preserve their innocence as long as possible. In her feature debut, #Like writer/director Sarah Pirozek presents such a story of loss of innocence in the digital age. Though the concept is powerful enough on its own, Pirozek structures the thriller as a film noir, milking the ambiguity for every deliciously agonizing drop.
It’s been a year since the death of Amelia (Samantha Nicole Dunn), Rosie’s (Sarah Rich) younger sister, and Rosie can’t let it go. She knows there’s more to the story than just rumors and when she finally uncovers some clues, she comes to realize that the person responsible is looking for more underage girls to exploit. Rosie always wondered how far she’d go to get justice for her sister and that chance arrives when a mysterious man (Marc Menchaca) matching her sister’s online assailant’s profile crosses her path.
The best narrative parts of #Like aren’t going to be discussed here, so don’t worry. Pulling on a single thread would undoubtedly soften the blows Pirozek assails her audience with throughout the course of the film. That flies against what EoM stands for, so there’s no concern there. However, examining Pirozek’s technique is fair game and does not in any way detract from the cinematic experience.
Like any good noir, the mood is set by Pirozek immediately, which is carried effortlessly throughout the film. Opening on Rosie’s cheerleading practice, members performing stunts, athletes practicing in the background, the golden glow of the sun shrinking in the distance, there’s a sense of a film full of life. No characters are the focus, yet through the body language of a character played by Jolene Marquez, we know that the person leaving the practice field is significant. This is the audience’s first indication of our lead, one which grows as we see her walk into frame toward a car sitting at a graveyard, the sun fully gone as she gets in on the passenger side. In a few short scenes, the credits barely complete, Pirozek establishes tone, relationships, and expectations. #Like isn’t a film driven by some manufactured coming-of-age drama, but by a loss of innocence, a shunting of purity to be replaced by beguiling adulthood. With simple staging and a persistent grainy hue over the whole film (hat tip to director of photography Brian Jackson), #Like pulses with the energy of a ‘70s thriller.
Then there’re her characters. An expectation of a film involving teens is that the characters would make stupid choices which would create natural moments of tension to keep the energy high. Instead, Pirozek’s characters defy those presumptions time and again. Rosie is crafted as a child of the digital age: managing her own social media accounts and utilizing technology to remain connected with her friends through various means when not at school. Her constant poking at her sister’s former social profiles and trying to unravel her sister’s internet habits are not unrealistic, particularly on the one-year anniversary. It’s in these moments, the scenes where Rosie flexes those investigative muscles, where Rich really shows the audience what she’s capable of. Even in dialogue-less scenes, Rich’s physical performance draws the audience in, seemingly opening up the character to let the rawness come through. Any good noir possesses a weighted ending. #Like is made more rich, more powerful, by Rich’s early scene work to create a positively stunning final shot. The performance conveys the truth of the character, which is of an individual driven by her pain, but not without reason. Marquez is only in the film a brief period, but Pirozek similarly designed her character Stacy complimentary to Rosie, not in a revenge-seeking manner, but in a grounded one. When Rosie first talks about her plans for vengeance, for justice for Amelia, Stacy takes it in stride; yet when Rosie’s words belie something actionable, Stacy immediately wants to involve the authorities. The fact that the characters are so naturally inclined to consider the implications of their actions is refreshing.
But what truly deserves applause is how closely Pirozek hews to the thriller genre in crafting her vengeance tale. Everything the audience sees is from the perspective of Rosie. She’s grief-stricken, perhaps more than she’s willing to admit, and finds herself going places she never expected on her quest for justice. What occurs between her and the man she’s targeting often feels like more than just because of her sister, but of some kind of righteous vengeance being levied upon an entire gender for what the men of this world do and say without concern of the mental, emotional, and psychological toll on women and young girls. As Rosie acquires evidence, the man becomes The Man, the worst of his kind, and everything is structured in a manner in which the audience begins rooting for the types of punishment Rosie may exercise. By controlling the perspective, Pirozek controls the audience and implants them with a view of the world forged from the actions of others, a view in which meaning is crafted through Rosie and is funneled through her perspective until the audience is as certain as she is, as filled with rage, and as determined to see it through. Pirozek so beautifully designs the narrative to fuel that certainty, that the ending of #Like becomes a challenge of self-perception and complicity.
The online and offline worlds are not disparate places, no matter how much any generation of users might wish otherwise. Even as people hide behind anonymity to like, comment, and reshare content, their actions online frequently spill over into the lives of the people they interact with. The troll who upends a conversation doesn’t see the trauma incited on the other end when they log off. They only feel the joy of their mayhem. This, of course, changes when the troll is someone close enough to the person to touch. With proximity comes the ability to make real the swath of pain and misery online abusers create. To see that their ephemeral words attach to corporeal individuals who process these things, often to a drastic end, the unconsidered consequence of a digital society, a Like-driven society. Some might look at Pirozek’s film and think she’s over-dramatizing technology for the sake of a story, except cyberbullying and sexploitation are more than ideas pushed by movie-makers and the writers for Law & Order: SVU. These are real issues which impact digital users of all ages. One need only view the final scene of #Like to understand how very real Pirozek believes the malignant nature of anonymity is. In that moment, the Internet becomes terrifying.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.