Influencer Culture Has Messed With Our Reality

Influencers love Hollywood, but Hollywood doesn’t seem to love them back. Social-media celebrities might star in movies and reality shows, but stories about them tend to be less kind. Emily in Paris scoffs at its protagonist’s need to post everything she sees. Ingrid Goes West treats Instagram as a breeding ground for stalkers. Even Zola, which capably captures the internet’s dissociative effects, frames its narrator as an oddity, too online for her own good.

Two bold new films take a different approach. Not Okay, now streaming on Hulu, and Bodies Bodies Bodies, out in theaters tomorrow, challenge the notion of the influencer as mere attention seeker. Both movies feature young, barely self-aware characters glued to their screens, who express themselves exclusively in the internet’s vernacular. And yet, both films also posit that influencers are products of a system that has forced a generation to turn hobbies into work and opinions into personal brands. Perhaps the ones who incessantly post about themselves aren’t the only problem; the ones who look—and can’t stop looking—at such feeds could use just as much scrutiny.

The satirical Not Okay chronicles the misguided exploits of a Millennial named Danni Sanders (played by Zoey Deutch), a wannabe writer who fakes a trip to Paris—only while she’s “there,” the city is bombed in a terrorist attack. Danni considers confessing that she was never in France, but the more sympathy she gets on social media, the more encouraged she feels to continue lying. She turns the tragedy into an opportunity, becoming a viral sensation with her posts about the incident. She reasons that having a platform is one of the only ways she can make a positive impact—and as the plot unspools, she’s proved right. Her boss, previously uninterested in her thoughts, commissions a personal essay from her in which she coins a hashtag, #NotOkay, that quickly trends. Her “trauma” allows her to befriend another social-media activist, a school-shooting survivor named Rowan (Mia Isaac). Danni’s ascent may seem outrageous—did no one properly fact-check her time abroad?—but the writer-director, Quinn Shephard, shrewdly observes how the internet favors emotion over logic. The lie catapults Danni to stardom, but the continued attention of online strangers—and the thrill of this false connection—sustains it.

Zoey Deutch sitting on a couch with a laptop in 'Not Okay'
Searchlight Pictures / Hulu

For a film that begins with a disclaimer warning the audience of “an unlikable female protagonist,” Not Okay is strikingly nuanced in its exploration of Danni’s morally heinous actions. At first glance, Danni seems to be an empty-headed stereotype, chasing clout by any means necessary, updating her style and personality according to what (or who) is trending. (“Can’t tone-deaf be, like, a brand, though?” she asks earnestly. “Isn’t that what Lena Dunham does?”) But Shephard doesn’t seek to lampoon her behavior. With an assist from a fine-tuned performance by Deutch, the film examines how Danni’s cobbled-together identity is both a result of the attention economy’s domination of her generation and the reason she feels numb enough to be capable of lying about a terrorist attack. The story comes to question what young people actually glean from posting endlessly about their life. Has Danni always wanted to be a writer, or is that just something she has been conditioned to consider aspirational? Does she really want this much of an audience? No wonder Danni struggles to learn a lesson from the backlash she eventually receives. Self-reflection isn’t truly possible when validation from online strangers is one’s only source of happiness.

As sharp as Not Okay is, though, I wish it better maintained its bleak, disturbing tone. The climax comes off as contrived, offering emotional catharsis for Danni and Rowan rather than diving more deeply into the destructive nature of the internet. In a case like Danni’s, relief is unlikely: There’d be backlash to the backlash, and the discourse would inevitably create new villains and victims. And in featuring cameos from real-life scandal-boosted internet celebrities such as Caroline Calloway, the film suggests that social-media vilification happens only for those who participate too much, for the people who willingly adopt Main Character Energy. That conclusion doesn’t gel with what the film, an otherwise stylish and thought-provoking rumination on how online attention affects everyone, had been exploring. Not Okay caves to Hollywood’s impulse for tidy endings.

The ensemble of 'Bodies Bodies Bodies' sitting in a living room

Bodies Bodies Bodies avoids that trap by grafting the internet’s chaotic energy onto a genre built for chaos: the young-adult slasher flick. When a hurricane traps a group of friends in a mansion for a night without electricity, they play a fake-murder game—only for real murders to start occurring. What begins as an evening of TikTok dances and debauchery turns into a frenzy of finger-pointing and fighting. Anyone who’s ever seen a slasher will go in expecting gruesome deaths and clues to the killer’s identity, but Bodies slyly focuses instead on the way the ensemble begins talking to and about one another. Accusations of gaslighting and silencing fly. Every legitimate concern about the danger they’re in veers into a tangential discussion about, say, who’s being toxic. In a fantastically delirious scene, one character talks about how no one understands the work that goes into putting together her podcast while another brandishes a gun, everyone seemingly forgetting that they’re supposed to be looking for the culprit.

In other words, it’s social-media discourse captured in horror-movie form—and it’s a blast, thanks to a superb cast relishing the poison coursing through their dialogue. Bodies isn’t the first film to examine online dynamics through such a lens, but it stands apart because it doesn’t simply observe the dangers of being online. It also conveys the overwhelming feeling of engaging with the internet’s disarray. Given the power outage, much of the story happens in the dark, the actors’ faces lit mostly by their phone screens, shrouding the film in disorientation. And it studies how such turbulence affects everyone, even those who try to disengage. Bee (played by Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s Maria Bakalova), for instance, is new to the group and attempts to stay out of the blame game, but she can’t help listening intently to everything being said and inserting her own opinions. Not all of the characters are influencers, but all of them are, well, influenced—to dire consequences.

Taken together, these films reject the idea that those who are hyper-online are somehow silly outliers, performing empty exercises in vanity. They point out how the internet by design has sanded complex ideas down to trending hashtags, stripping subtlety from language and producing younger generations who confuse attention for personal growth. As I watched them, I wondered how they’d age. In about 10 years, will such observations seem outdated? Probably not. If anything, these films show how impossible logging off can be for everyone.

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