'Mainstream': Film Review | Venice 2020

Mainstream Venice FIlm Festival
Eat Art LLC
No one over 25 admitted.

'Palo Alto' director Gia Coppola lets loose in a surreal spoof on the social media generation starring Andrew Garfield.

Gia Coppola’s first feature Palo Alto chronicled teenagers stumbling toward adulthood way back in distant 2013; her new Mainstream, bowing in Venice’s Horizons section, features a trio of 20-somethings plundering the Internet culture of their time, bartering their values for big cash and followers on social media but still, of course, looking for love. It's a messy, childish scrawl of a film, but it is high on energy. Andrew Garfield leaves his mark as a screaming, spontaneous, unstable genius who dazzles the Internet like a latter-day Jim Carrey in a Gen Z version of The Truman Show.

Buckets of eye-popping animated visuals in bright colors would have attracted the younger demographic all the way down to nursery school had there not been so much prurient male nudity putting it off limits. The other side of the age line is more likely to wonder if the story penned by Coppola and Tom Stuart is anything more than a vapid lifestyle diary (the Kardashians are mentioned). If there is a hidden message here, it is that all attempts to break free of society’s restrictions via the nearly infinite resources of media now at our fingertips are subject to the laws of human nature, and therefore bound to fail. What seems like a shiny key to escape the mainstream thought police turns out to be booby-trapped with what Coppola calls narcissism and insecurity.

One might stretch the Internet metaphor to include filmmaking as a whole (the main character, Frankie, is a fledgling videomaker). Generally speaking, what starts out as a low-budget, free-spirited indie film risks turning into a money machine when the bankers and sponsors step in and decide on the content and turn it back into a bad old mainstream production.

Frankie (Maya Hawke, who appeared as a flower-child in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and still has the look of a shy innocent) has dropped out of school after her father’s death and is working as a barista in a sordid club off Hollywood Boulevard, along with her sensitive buddy Jake (Nat Wolff from Palo Alto), who can sing and write. Her chance encounter with a wacky young man in a cockroach costume (Garfield) stimulates her creative juices, among others, and they get acquainted in a string of weird encounters, which she tapes.

Calling himself Link and looking like a blond beach boy, the mysterious fellow heats up the Internet when Frankie posts his loud-mouthed rants. He remains unimpressed. “You don’t realize how hard it is to get hits,” she gasps. He tells her he doesn’t own a phone.

Taking a contrarian approach with the slogan “phones are crack cocaine,” Link orders his new followers to meet him after dark in a graveyard — of course they all show up — and to put their phones on a tombstone until the battery dies. More videos bring more fame and a savvy social media agent, played with sublime sleaze by Jason Schwartzman. Now money and sponsors raise their ugly heads, along with the need to keep increasing traffic.

Link, whose stage name is No One Special, is asked to host a game show written by Jake and run by Frankie. But when the camera’s on, no one can stop his outrageous stream of insults and nonsense. When he bullies a member of the audience (Alexa Demie) into posting her unmade-up face with a birthmark to her thousands of followers, tragedy follows. “The audience killed her,” he justifies himself. “I was just trying to wake them up.”

At the press screening in Venice, one could sense a certain dismayed hostility to the film’s prepubescent humor and plot. In one quite unforgettable scene, No One Special is invited to an Internet round table with the big stars of the cell phone screen. He soon starts attacking the host (Johnny Knoxville) and the other guests, calling out their hypocrisy and threatening them with a huge piece of excrement he produces there and then on the table.

Another gag that won’t pass unnoticed has Link running down the street starkers and letting it all hang out, while shouting like a madman. And yet, no matter how much you may hate the character's exhibitionist antics and self-serving choices, it has to be admitted Garfield can be funny as hell. He is that rare actor who forces you to laugh against your will — maybe not all the time, but sometimes.

Editor Glen Scantlebury does an inventive job carving a frantic pace out of thousands of disparate pieces of film and animation. Devonte Hines' score is deeply embedded in the imaginative, rather childish visuals.

Production companies: A Fred Berger Production
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Maya Hawke, Nat Wolff, Jason Schwartzman, Alexa Demie, Johnny Knoxville
Director: Gia Coppola
Screenwriters: Tom Stuart, Gia Coppola
Producers: Fred Berger, Gia Coppola, Lauren Bratman, Andrew Garfield, Siena Oberman, Jack Heller, Enrico Saraiva, Francisco Rebelo de Andrade, Alan Terpins, Zac Weinstein
Executive producers: Robert Schwartzman, Michael Musante, Amy Jarvela, Greta Seacat, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Tom Stuart, Scott Veltri, Andre Novis
Director of photography: Autumn Durald Arkapaw
Production designer: Nathan Parker
Costume designer: Jacqui Getty
Editor: Glen Scantlebury
Music: Devonte Hines
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
World sales: Wild Bunch
94 minutes