Gia Coppola’s sophomore feature Mainstream had its premiere at 2020’s Venice Film Festival (a rare festival, which took place in person last year), before making the rounds to a few international festivals. It was met with mostly negative reactions, sitting in the mid-30s on Rotten Tomatoes, before making a limited theatrical run and VOD debut today. It’s a mixed-bag, for sure, but Mainstream has a kinetic energy that is impossible to dismiss, no matter how uneven the construction of the movie may be.
Like many movie protagonists we’ve seen before, Frankie (Maya Hawke) is lost in Los Angeles, working at bar, which provides nightly entertainment by way of magicians and various other strange performances. Frankie isn’t entirely certain what she wants to do, but tending bar isn’t it. Luckily, her friend Jake (Nat Wolff) is always by her side to keep her sane on any given night.
Frankie records her surroundings to upload to YouTube, thinking a few hundred views means she’s on to something. One day, she spots a man in a giant rat costume, who notices she’s recording him and strikes up a conversation with her. Link (Andrew Garfield) exudes a strange energy from the get-go and continues to cross paths with Frankie. It’s not clear what he does around Los Angeles, if he does anything, but Frankie, Link and Jake decide to team up and create online videos, in the hopes of this being their way to make it big in the City of Dreams. Link has a personality that fills a room, so he is the on-camera talent. Jake is an aspiring writer, who comes up with ideas for them to film and Frankie starts off operating the camera. They team up with a manager (Jason Schwartzman), who helps them achieve larger opportunities in the search for viral fame.
Mainstream’s message about the digital age and our constant consumption of nonsense on the Internet is certainly not novel, but Coppola walks a tightrope of stylized energy and melancholy. Probably the best scene in the movie is one of the film’s quieter ones, where Frankie and Link are at a restaurant and talking about what they want from life. It’s clear neither really know. Frankie begins recording Link, who slithers under the table because he’s incapable of being serious for too long, but once Link turns the camera on her, her eyes fall to the ground. She wants to create, without having to reveal too much of herself, which is a tricky place to be in when creating videos of the web. She feels a rush when a video she posted of Link gets a lot of comments (as anyone does, Link focuses on the first negative comment, opposed to all the good ones). “You want to make art or do you want to chase affirmation from faceless strangers?,” Link asks her. She doesn’t seem to have an answer.
As their popularity grows, so does Link’s ego and Garfield’s performance. From the moment he takes the head off the rat costume, Garfield is committed to channeling every toxic person you’ve seen on the Internet (none more toxic and controversy-seeking than Jake Paul, who makes a cameo appearance). Garfield’s career trajectory has been fascinating, especially in the post-Spider-Man years. He broke out in a big way with The Social Network (he should have been nominated and won Best Supporting Actor for his performance) and a few years later, he became the next Spider-Man. His two The Amazing Spider-Man movies weren’t well-received, so his time as the web-slinger were short-lived. When actors attempt at leading blockbusters don’t pan out, it allows them to take on more interesting movies and not become beholden to five-picture contracts. Mainstream is akin to his work in the equally messy and equally intriguing Under the Silver Lake, which also kicked around for a bit after a poor festival reception. Garfield has settled in nicely to a career, where he isn’t afraid to take chances and his performance as Link is everything it should be: Damaged, annoying, noxious and desperate.
Coppola doesn’t quite skewer the age of influencers as much as Mainstream tries to present, but much like us and our phones, there’s an addictive quality to the film. Mainstream never feels like a celebration of the temporary fame people achieve online – because it’s always fleeting – but plays like a warning. Content creators, be warned.