In her debut feature, Jazmin Jones and collaborator Olivia McKayla Ross are looking for answers. They turn to the divine, the public, and, of course, the Internet for guidance. Their holy grail is Mavis Beacon (or, more accurately, the woman who first portrayed her), the virtual instructor who led one of the most popular learning games of all time. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing is a font of nostalgia for those who played it in its heyday, and Black fans like Jones saw Mavis as an especially important pioneer for their digital representation.

Seeking Mavis Beacon is a more artistic and conceptual film than investigative, though Jones and Ross uncover some intriguing context about Renée L’Espérance, the model who first portrayed Beacon. As the game’s first face––and thus the blueprint for Mavis, who was henceforth a Black, female character––L’Espérance played a key role in the birth of the blockbuster game. But what does it mean to surrender your image to the digital world, and what does Mavis Beacon say about the cultural legacy of Black women in tech? If only this documentary spent more time clearly answering those questions, less on behind-the-scenes musings.

If Jones’ directorial style could be summed up in a slogan, it would be “But first: aesthetics.” She documents the setup of their office, a kind of vaporwave neon cave in a warehouse room. There’s an altar to Mavis Beacon, posters of Black icons on the walls, and a tower of pleasantly grainy monitors, one of which plays Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman on a loop.

Jones’ mastery of Y2K vibes is apparent throughout, as a crisp Mac interface introduces ideas through gifs, memes, and webpages. These beautiful in-screen scenes guide viewers down the rabbit hole, TikToks and Google searches breaking complex ideas down into smaller bites. In its strongest moments, Seeking Mavis Beacon feels like a cybercore cousin of All Light, Everywhere, Theo Anthony’s 2021 high-concept documentary about police-surveillance technology and the power of the camera.

Those high points are somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the film, which can be as frustrating as it is contemplative. Seeking Mavis Beacon quickly becomes less about what this software and its spokeswoman represent, more about what Jones and Ross are thinking or doing at any given time––even if it distracts from the film’s mission. Things get particularly navel-gazey as the doc meanders to the end of its 102 minutes, the focus shifting to scenes wherein Ross and Jones talk about how difficult it is to finish the film.

It’s clear that Jones is up on her academic theory, but that can be a detriment when trying to communicate ideas to a more general audience. (There is perhaps no better example of collegiate vernacular impinging on her everyday lexicon than a speech in which she reminds Ross to watch “the directionality” of a champagne bottle she’s about to open.) Little effort’s made to unpack the jargon that the filmmakers and experts they interview, themselves academics and artists, bandy about. Thus these segments can confuse rather than enlighten, especially since some of them feel chopped-up or out-of-place. One with writer Shonda von Reinhold seems to exist primarily for the sake of a highly aestheticized tea party. Stephanie Dinkins’ perspectives on race and AI are interesting, but the film erroneously  labels her a “trans media artist” instead of a “transmedia artist.” 

As Seeking Mavis Beacon peters out, Ross muses that their inauspicious ending is prudent because the impulse to draw conclusions––to assign a narrative its winners and losers––is inherently colonialist. Maybe so! Or maybe this film would offer its viewers more closure if it had been constructed with accessibility in mind. These filmmakers are deft thinkers and brilliant artists, but they are also a bit––as they say online––lost in the sauce

Seeking Mavis Beacon premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: C-

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