top of page

Mainstream Something Else

Spoilers for Gia Coppola’s Mainstream Ahead

In a world where opinions are getting cheaper by the day, it’s difficult to say, or create, anything that hasn’t been said before. Consequently, it goes without saying that in the era of social media, if you’re thinking it, it’s already been thought of. But while this sentiment is echoed across all media of creative art, film is usually the most celebrated when it acknowledges the communal experiences of the human condition. It doesn’t matter that these ideas and journeys have been shared countless times: the act of doing so is the source of its value. So when a movie like Gia Coppola’s Mainstream comes along and attempts to wax poetic on the current state of social media addiction we’re facing as a species, the success of the film doesn’t necessarily hinge on the why of it all but more on the how. The most important aspect of telling a story is creating a realistic space for the story to unfold and then filling that space with characters who have something to say. But when nobody’s saying anything, the value of the journey diminishes.

Mainstream fancies itself a soapbox for the plight of today’s cell-phone obsessed youth, but it might as well be shouting into the void. The film opens with what you’re led to believe is one of our protagonist’s short films: an old-fashioned sepia-toned series of intertitles questioning whether Frankie (a mis-used Maya Hawke) will find what she’s searching for artistically, if she’ll ever get over the guilt she harbors for her father’s death, and if she can trust the enigmatic Link (the film’s synthetic heart, Andrew Garfield). The first few minutes of Mainstream are stylistically juxtaposed to the remainder of the film, but I don’t believe that choice was artistically made. This sloppy beginning begs a deeper conversation between Coppola and the art she personally makes (especially with her own history of her father - Gian-Carlo Coppola - tragically dying in a boating accident before she was even born), but the film never dives into anything nearly as interesting as the relationship between women and art, and if anything, the film paints women-who-create as a blight on the artistic world...but more on that later.

After this false-start of a beginning, we learn (through a series of exposition dumps) that Frankie has been out in Hollywood for a seemingly long time, much to her mother’s dismay. She’s out there just trying to make her “art” happen, and her attempts just happen to be a handful of YouTube videos that aren’t garnering much attention. She works at a hole-in-the-wall magic-themed bar, The Magic Alley, with her (apparently) only friend, Jake, and is clearly stuck in a cycle of ennui. Nothing much is happening for good ole Frankie, until she is just hanging out at some random ole mall for no good reason except to meet Link, who she has chosen to film interacting with mall-shoppers while dressed as a mouse (or maybe a rat?) trying to sell cheese. He notices her filming him and then decides to, essentially, perform for her, giving her the material for her most successful YouTube upload to date. And when she sees him, randomly, on the LA streets a short while later, she’s desperate to collaborate with him again. So, what is it you’re into, Frankie? Is it making art or getting clicks, likes, and comments? And can they not be mutually exclusive? Mainstream can’t seem to figure it out.

After Frankie and Link decide to become content creating partners (with the inclusion of barman Jake as their trusty writer) they home in on their message to the world: phones bad, screen addiction bad, society is full of idiots - and they’re the ones to bring this revolutionary thinking to the masses. They craft a “character,” a YouTube personality if you will, for Link to play called “No One Special” who “teaches” internet users to not listen to him on his philosophies, because he’s just like them: No One Special. But all the while, they’re copying YouTube’s most prolific and successful cash cows. Of course, this blows up online, and the team’s success becomes an ouroboros of philosophical and moral debate: how can you judge what you hate if you’re prospering off the success from exploiting those you claim to be brainwashed?

See, I get the movie (if I may be so bold to assume), but I find the film, for lack of a better descriptor, tragically sloppy. Let’s get into what I loved about the film first: Andrew Garfield as Link as No One Special. This movie belongs to him. The costume, makeup, and hair departments dressed him to the nines, and he’s never looked better on screen (at least that I can remember, which is saying something). His commitment to the character in all its manic glory is superb. See, Link isn’t even who he is. Poor ole Link (who is living off the streets and doesn’t even own a cellphone) is really some wealthy kid who’s reinvented himself after facing charges from his pyro past...but SHHHHH! Don’t tell Frankie! Apparently, his hidden past is very upsetting to her when she finds out...even though she never asks him about his past, and she’s seemingly totally fine hitching her post to a handsome stranger...but, this movie wants you to ignore that and Frankie’s intentions for her anger towards Link, because, well, none of it really matters.

Regardless, No One Special is, in fact, very special. The manner in which Garfield moves and commands the screen is captivating, and Mainstream is at its best when he’s on screen, especially so when his presence is amplified by emojis and classic social media filters. Despite Mainstream’s Charlie Chaplin-esque opening (sure, film good - and, again, internet bad), the film is really trying to lambast current social media content and creation by using footage manipulation to highlight how stupid it is. Buuuuuuuuuut...this is when the film is the most fun and engaging to watch. In fact, it’s why I was so excited to watch Mainstream in the first place. But that brings me to another disappointment: the trailer for Mainstream truly is a best-of reel of its best content. Its manic, hyper-filtered premise is what drew me to the film, and it's the majority of what I enjoyed while watching it. Is the film, or Coppola herself, telling me I’m dumb for liking those aspects best? If so, why make the rest of the film such a hot mess?

After No One Special and his team fall from their peak (hosting a YouTube game show where they challenge their contestants to choose between either a reward for abandoning their cellphones or performing a ridiculous challenge to win their phone back), they decide to change their show’s format by challenging their audience members to buck social media’s hold on them. Obviously, forcing random people to alter their interactions with the outside world through social media doesn’t seem like a great idea (free will, anyone?), but No One Special forces one woman to rail against Big Makeup by posting an unedited photo of herself - one that shows her natural, birthmarked, face with the world as opposed to the make-up covered selfie she originally posted. (The film doesn’t want you to think too hard about how they obtained the original selfie, because, it truly doesn’t make sense that she would have had the same picture on her phone sans makeup, considering she said it was make-up and not a filter...but, whatever.) This forceful betrayal of trust lands No One Special, and team, in the hot seat for subjugating this young woman, Isabelle, to abuse and public humiliation, and a spot on a round table of YouTuber influencers who question his behavior.

This is, perhaps, the strangest and most complicated scene of the film. No One Special has been invited to a morning-talk-show-style roundtable interview by some-such character played by Johnny Knoxville and propagated with other real-life YouTube personalities, including, but not limited to: Patrick Starr, Desmond Is Amazing, and Jake Paul. They immediately chastise NOS for causing Isabelle pain, to which he rebuts that it is the rest of society (especially the female, and sometimes female-presenting, content creators who use makeup as a means for content creation) who led Isabelle to believe she wasn’t good enough to begin with. This is a sentiment that I can get behind when it comes to self-worth, but the implication that the majority of female content-creators are only good for make-up tutorials, and that they don’t do a good job of imparting to their bases that they use make-up as a means of self-expression and art rather than a means of gender-imprisonment (or the argument that the viewers are too stupid to tell the difference) is extremely strange to watch...especially coming from a female director/writer such as Coppola. If Frankie is supposed to be a foil for Coppola (which is hard to ignore considering they’re both women who consider themselves to be artists who have both tragically lost their fathers), it’s telling that Frankie doesn’t wear make-up (even to cover up the scar she obtained from her father’s fatal car-crash) and seems to dress androgynously. Is Coppola trying to say that women who conform to societal female beauty stereotypes are damaging to the female population, or is she trying to say that men who attempt to teach women how to feel about themselves and how they should react to the world-at-large the problem?

Honestly, I don’t think the film knows either...or even necessarily put much thought into it at all. It’s even stranger that the only female-driven performance at The Magic Alley revolves around an older female performer/comedian using Frankie as a stand-in for a, female content-creators are only good for make-up or babies...gotcha. Oh, except for you, Coppola, who apparently is lifting the scales from our eyes by showing us the way….cool.

During the roundtable interview, No One Special claims that Isabelle couldn't have been too broken up about her tribulation on the game-show, because she later tried to hook-up with him after the taping, boldly stating that if she still felt she had something to prove to herself by sleeping with him, then that was no life to be living. She should find the validation for her own life’s worth from within. At this point, barman/writer Jake has already left the team, appalled that they humiliated a woman and then chose to edit the footage to make it seem like she made the decision to post the selfie herself. And after Link’s performance during the interview, even Frankie’s patience with No One Special’s prophetic teachings is beginning to wane. So when No One Special gets picked up for a special live YouTube event for the last scene of the film, Frankie is already checked out. And when it’s revealed that Isabelle has taken her own life after No One Special’s comments (her life wasn’t worth living, remember?), Frankie disconnects entirely. This happens simultaneously to Frankie finding out that Link has been lying about his past, and shortly after Jake confesses that he’s in love with her. (Yes, that was exceedingly and stupidly obvious the entire time and we’re meant to believe that these characters are too stunted to express, and also understand, said feelings.) Frankie has just been too blinded by Andrew Garfield’s good looks to realize the better option had been under her nose the entire time.

Isabelle’s death is meant to be THE climax of the film, changing Frankie’s opinion of Link and the outcome of how the audience is meant to view him as well. But it’s confusing that we’re also shown Frankie’s distrust of Link’s character through her reaction to discovering his true life’s story. Why is Link’s past important, if he’s just a shit person at the core anyway? And why do we need to see the resolution of Frankie joining up with Jake at the impromptu memorial for Isabelle if women are supposed to be bucking the societal pressures of women having to please any man? Just, why, Why, WHY? And that’s my main dissatisfaction with the film as a whole: it can’t quite seem to keep straight which messages it would like to impart. And it doesn’t help that Frankie is one of the most boring lead characters I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching. She’s a woman who barely has any core drive outside of servicing the story, and because she was so unbelievable and shallow, the story crumbles around her.

There’s a great line from a classic film that I think everyone has heard at one point or another: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” (Thanks, Ferris.) Well, life moves super fast now, and perhaps this film could have been a rallying cry a few years ago, but at this point, I think we’re the most discerning between what constitutes good and bad content that we’ve ever been, and plenty of people (both old and young) are striving to create good content that’s empowering to all involved. Sure, we’ll always be subject to stupid, unnecessary, and even harmful content, but as a society we’ve become more (I say more, not adequately) adept at treating each other with kindness and have begun to cleanse the internet of those whose main intent is to harm. I think we’re on an upward trend of support, and perhaps I’m just a bit naive, but I think we’re taking the filter back. We’ve learned, especially in this last year, to cut each other a little slack and enjoy one another’s existence in its natural state. It’s a shame that Mainstream came out after a period of intense worldwide self-reflection and isolation. Social Media moves pretty fast these days. If you don’t post while your message is relevant, you could miss your opportunity. Last week’s trending video is this week’s forgotten folly. I’ll tell you what is worth watching though: that Mainstream trailer. I think you can find it on YouTube.


Bernadette Gorman-White

Managing Editor

Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.




bottom of page