More often than not, a documentary reveals as much about the person behind the camera as it does about the person in front. Like all things, what we see is a matter of perspective and point of view. The documentarian may capture their subject in a moment, but how that moment is presented to the audience – the angle, the editing, the sound, the pacing – is shaped by the documentarian. This concept is made ever clearer in the new project Use Me from actor-writer-director Julian Shaw (San Andreas/Cup of Dreams), a documentary developed around renowned FemDom “mental humiliatrix” Ceara Lynch. Blending elements from found footage, thriller, and documentary styles, Use Me is a mind-warping experience as the line between fiction and real overlaps again and again until no one can tell who is the subject and who is observer.
Sydney-based documentarian Julian Shaw (as himself) travels to Portland, Oregon, to work on a project with famed Cam Girl Ceara Lynch (as herself). Framed throughout as trying to identify the American Dream, Shaw’s interviews with Lynch reveal details of her business, as well as her past, providing a glimpse behind the curtain of the illustrious and secretive humiliatrix. However, the more time Shaw spends in Lynch’s world of sexual proclivity, indulgence, and excess, the more the line of subject and observer blurs with Shaw slowly finding himself at the center of a storm of his own making.
Use Me is a mind-bending feat of cinema in the way it not only meshes genres to create an absolutely compelling experience, but how the line of reality and fiction is relentlessly smudged. This all begins with the cast of Use Me. With the exception of a few, everyone in the film is playing themselves, even if the character is nothing more than an altered facsimile. Julian *is* a documentarian, Ceara is a professional humiliatrix, and the bulk of the people they spend time with, identified in the film by their names, are who they claim. This allows Use Me to lean into the documentary-style aspect, applying layer upon layer of authenticity, which really serves to convince the audience that what they’re observing isn’t scripted. This is incredibly important to the success of the film on the whole as things escalate in a way which makes sense for a found footage film, so the audience must be absolutely all in on the reality of things in order for the tension to work. Of the central cast, there are three who are not who they claim: Jazlyn Yoder (Chicago P.D.), Sarah Armanious (Fighting Season), and Joseph Reitman (Happy!), all whose roles add the kind of elements which make sense when portrayed by professional actors. For their part, Shaw and Lynch are so incredibly convincing in the fictionalized versions of themselves that, even with evidence to the contrary, the audience may be hard-pressed to figure out where the truth and the script converge. So great is Lynch’s performance in conveying depth and complexity that anyone would be absolutely convinced of Ceara’s obscure, seemingly pernicious, intentions, forgetting that she’s working off a script from Shaw. Shaw is a fantastic scene partner, every action and reaction seems authentic and in-the-moment, rather than scripted. This, combined with the character’s individual arc, is paramount to nailing down the documentary feeling which slowly shifts from the typical genre structure and becomes a part of the narrative itself.
Where Use Me really hits its stride, however, is the subtle undertones Shaw’s script lays throughout the film by weaponizing other tropes from other genres against his audience. It’s the use of day-time cards and location markers, which pop-up from time to time to establish a timeline of events. It’s the use of interview footage, supposed archived photographs and videos, and man-on-the-street interviews to create a narrative around the actual events. These things are typical of documentaries to cultivate a general theme for the film or to add color to the subject where the subject themselves may only be able to provide their specific POV. What Shaw does is pure mind-fuckery, whether you see it coming or not, and it’s brilliant to behold.
There is one persistent issue with Use Me that’s less an issue with the creator or execution, but more of a matter of sustaining a sense of disbelief. If you know where to look, as observant audiences may be so inclined, Shaw continually hints at the truth within Use Me. It’s not so much projection as it is an attempt at misdirection. The structure of the film is designed to create confusion and mistrust in everything that’s presented – and that makes Use Me frequently riveting – however, this also instills a sense within the audience that they, too, should question everything. As such, with bread crumbs in place, a tipping of the hand may occur. Credit goes to Shaw, who seems to have anticipated this possibility, for taking advantage of the thriller elements which begin to naturally appear after the set-up, turning a persistent nagging into a banshee’s cry. As such, whether the audience thinks they’ve peered behind the curtain of Shaw’s machinations or not, Use Me sticks the landing with an incredibly satisfying ending.
As Shaw articulates through the man-on-the-street interviews, the American Dream is a double-edged sword of possibilities. It can be a thing which builds you up to incredible heights, but, if you’re not prepared, can also tear you down. Considering Use Me began as a Kickstarter under the title Ruin Me, time can only tell where on the path to the Dream Shaw currently resides. One thing is absolutely clear: Use Me is a unique piece of cinema which will challenge its audience to consider their own perspectives on kink and fetishism, on habit and addiction, and on truth and perception. Though Shaw tips his hand a touch too hard, the performances and narrative are enough to keep the audience locked in until the final frame.
Despite premiering June 2nd, 2019 during the Brooklyn Film Festival, no current release date is scheduled. You can keep tabs on Use Me’s whereabouts through their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, as well as the film’s website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.