'Social Animals': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of Conscious Minds/Subconscious Films
A well-crafted mosaic in search of a center.

Three Instagram-savvy teens share the pros and cons of their social media experiences in a debut documentary premiering in Austin.

To his credit, director Jonathan Ignatius Green lets the digital natives do the talking in Social Animals. His exploration of cameraphone-centric youth culture uses no filter of scholarly talking-head commentary to make its points. That gives the film an immediacy, but also a certain diffuseness, both within the individual stories and collectively.

Still, the film could spark convos, not just among the young'uns who recognize themselves in the always-on Insta-world where image building is primary and DMing qualifies as dating, but among the grownups who remember what life was like pre-internet. Centering on a trio of very different high-school-age Instagram aficionados, Green's first feature-length doc has a visual sheen that suits the topic, and seamlessly incorporates judicious use of reenactments. Neither celebrating nor bemoaning its subject, it gazes head-on at the ways some people embrace the chance to live life as a nonstop popularity contest while others are hurt by it.

The most compelling of his three subjects is Humza Deas, whose audacious adventures in photography could easily have been the focus of a stand-alone film. A kid from the projects in Astoria, Queens, he's an example of someone who has used Instagram to make art, his urban-explorer photos revealing views of New York City from bridges and high-rise ledges. Those photographs were also a way of separating himself from the pack, and Deas' breathtaking images eventually morphed into a brand-making venture, with lucrative assignments for clients including Kanye West.

Brand building is the name of the game for Kaylyn Slevin, a SoCal beauty queen and self-described "dancer and beach girl." Her pampered upbringing will make her, for some viewers, the hissable part of this group portrait, although her princess quality is earnest rather than pretentious.

After Slevin's parents came to appreciate the networking value of the app for their aspiring fashion entrepreneur, her Instagram dabbling turned into a quest for 500K followers. Green is there, in the Slevins' palatial gated-community home, when Kaylyn receives 687 likes in two minutes for a post asking what color she should paint her bedroom. Over time, he captures her graduating from friends' cameraphone snapshots to photo shoots with a stylist. But as with so many of her generation, even when she's just hanging with her friends (and her boyfriend, who happens to be superstar songwriter Jimmy Jam's son), it seems that nothing truly happens unless it's documented on Instagram.

The film's third strand is a more familiar cautionary tale that relates to social media in general. While Slevin and Deas are using Instagram to create careers, Emma Crockett sees it as a job that she doesn't particularly like: "But I keep doing it." A resident of rural Ohio, Crockett became the victim of bad boys and mean girls in her small Christian high school, with social media amplifying jealous snipes into the kind of heartlessness that many teens haven't survived. 

In different ways, cowardly trolls and online stalkers have affected all three of the film's subjects. With Crockett's story, Green focuses less on the trauma than on the changes this intelligent and down-to-earth teen made in her life and her relationship to social media. There's an undeniable poignancy and power to her striving for a sense of balance.

A Greek chorus of teens who speak directly to the camera deliver some of the film's most incisive observations. "Instagram opened the horizon for pettiness in my generation," one girl says with the hard-won certainty of experience. Social Animals sometimes drifts out of focus, but at its sharpest it offers clear views from inside the newfangled prism of the digitized, endlessly photo-documented life.

Production company: Subconscious Films/Conscious Minds
With: Humza Deas, Kaylyn Slevin, Emma Crockett, Demid Lebedev, Bill Slevin, Jimmy Jam, Shaqwill Deas
Director: Jonathan Ignatius Green
Screenwriters: Carol Martori, Jonathan Ignatius Green, Peter Garriott
Producer: Blake Heal
Executive producers: Mark Lipson, Cameron DeArmond, Chase Jensen, Amanda Jensen
Directors of photography: Julian King, Martim Vian, Josh Kraszewski, Jonathan Green
Editors: Brady Hammes, Peter Garriott
Composer: Matt Abeysekera
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: Submarine Entertainment

87 minutes