InRealLife: Toronto Review

The anti-social network.

Timely British documentary examines the dubious highs and damaging lows of teenage Internet use.

How worried should we be about the effects of online interaction, social media and smartphones on young people? The British director Beeban Kidron takes an evenhanded but broadly apprehensive view in this wide-ranging documentary, which combines teenage case studies with jaw-dropping data statistics and anxious testimony from expert talking heads. A commendably serious and polished piece of work, InRealLife is slightly hobbled by its broad-brush, thematically scattered approach. Following its world premiere in Toronto today, it opens theatrically in the U.K. next week. The hot-button subject and technically slick delivery should snare further festival bookings and overseas sales interest.

The London-born Kidron has a strong track record. Though she has directed a handful of high-profile dramatic features, most prominently the second Bridget Jones movie, The Edge of Reason, in 2004, her roots are in socially and politically engaged documentaries. Her TV portfolio includes acclaimed films about anti-nuclear protesters, sex workers in New York and sex slavery in India. She also co-founded a charity that screens films to U.K. schoolchildren and was made a baroness in Britain’s House of Lords last year.

InRealLife opens with a dramatic question: “Have we outsourced our children to the Internet?” Looking for answers, Kidron interviews teenage boys who cheerfully admit their toxic attitudes to women have been shaped by the superabundance of cyber-porn, follows a young gay couple meeting for their first date after falling in love online, and attends a flashmob-style gathering in London organized by the cult YouTube phenomenon Toby "Tobuscus" Turner. But the most harrowing case studies are the 15-year-old girl who effectively concedes to gang rape to retrieve her BlackBerry and the parents of a schoolboy driven to suicide by online bullies.

Between personal stories, Kidron interviews commentators, including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, author and academic Clay Shirky, MIT professor Sherry Turkle and WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, who calls the Internet “the greatest spying machine that has ever been developed.” The director also tries to grasp the vast technological infrastructure behind nebulous concepts like "the cloud," visiting heavily fortified network hubs in Manhattan and eerily empty data centers in the California desert. Scored to crackles of spooky electronic music, these scenes lend the film a light sheen of dystopian science fiction, though they have little relevance to its central theme.

Late in the film we learn that Facebook, Google, BlackBerry, Twitter, Yahoo and Apple all declined to cooperate with Kidron. This revelation might have cut deeper if the director had unearthed some smoking gun, some killer secret at the dark heart of the Internet. As it stands, InRealLife is too broad and shapeless a story, perhaps because the web itself is a sprawling and amorphous phenomenon. The chief villains identified here -- capitalism, sexism, teenage bullying, state surveillance, sinister advertising strategies -- all existed long before iPhones were invented.

There is potentially rich raw material here for separate documentaries about online gender politics, Internet bullies, virtual relationships, the shady motives of corporate tech giants and the awesome global grid that now wires the world. But bundled together into a single story, each of these fertile themes can only be covered in a fleeting, superficial manner. With the web barely 20 years old, and social media and smartphones much younger, it also feels too early to gauge their true impact on teenage minds. Kidron’s film is admirably ambitious, but inevitably inconclusive.

Production companies: Cross Street Films, Studio Lambert Ltd, Sky Atlantic, BFI

Producers: Beeban Kidron, Freya Sampson

Starring: Jimmy Wales, Julian Assange, Sherry Turkle, Maggie Jackson, Clay Shirky

Director: Beeban Kidron

Camera: Neil Harvey

Editor: David Charap

Sales company: Dogwoof, London

Rated 14A, 86 minutes