Six years after the release of her debut Palo Alto, Gia Coppola returns with Mainstream, a media satire set in sunny Los Angeles about a couple of disaffected young people who decide to make it big on YouTube by creating viral content. It’s a logline with promise, but the execution leaves a great deal to be desired. Palo Alto was a stylish introduction for the director back in 2014; perhaps a touch dramatically stilted but there was enough cool in all those neon lights, humid Californian nights, and woozy synths to suggest the arrival of a new voice.
The years, however, have not been so kind to it. The story followed a group of affluent teens, most notably a precocious young woman (Emma Roberts) who has an affair with her soccer coach (James Franco), for whom she babysits. Franco wrote the short stories from which it was based but in 2018 was accused of eerily similar behavior by five women in his acting class.
Fears of what the entertainment industry might be doing to us have been around for much longer than social media. In Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, a country singer played by Andy Griffith cynically rises to stardom by becoming the voice of the American working class—63 years on this feels more prescient than ever. In Sidney Lumet’s Network, made two decades after Kazan’s masterpiece, a veteran news anchor (Peter Finch) becomes the station’s hottest ticket when he has a mental breakdown on live TV. In both cases, it is the producer who first discovers them that ultimately regrets––a little too late of course––that they have pushed them to such extremes.
Mainstream looks to update this blueprint to the present day with the story of a seemingly charming lad (a deeply unsettling Andrew Garfield, in all the wrong ways) who finds quick fame as the face of an iconoclastic YouTube channel but is all too rapidly seduced by the spotlight. One of Mainstream‘s many failings is that Coppola takes no time to show the transition. In the Kazan film, there was always something in Griffith’s eye that suggested he had power and success in mind. Garfield, on the other hand, switches from a mellow anti-establishment guy to menacing villain in the blink of an eye.
Maya Hawke (one of the film’s scant saving graces) plays Frankie, a shy twenty-something-year-old who works the bar at a comedy variety show alongside her friend Jake (Nat Wolff, similarly charming). In her spare time she makes videos and uploads them to her YouTube channel. At the beginning of the film she encounters Link (Garfield) and films him having his pseudo-Network moment. The video gets clicks and Frankie is smitten. Cue meteoric rise to producing an insufferable YouTube game show called Your Phone or Your Dignity.
It is hard not to wonder about Coppola––a filmmaker who is, by my count, the most recent iteration of a cinematic dynasty that has given us Brando with a cat, Bill Murray singing Roxy Music, and the career of Nicolas Cage. It can be easy being a Coppola but, with respect, it’s also difficult not to attribute Mainstream’s lack of self-awareness to some sort of cosseted upbringing. Nobody likes getting preached to––least of all when it comes from the Hollywood glitterati. Coppola is not the first filmmaker to inspect the lure of Internet celebrity nor is she the first to question the effect on young people’s mental health that all those dopamine hits might be having. Bo Burnham’s excellent Eighth Grade remains the high watermark, for the latter at least. In theory, she should be well-positioned for such a film. This is not it.
Indeed, the strangest thing about Mainstream (and it is a strange, strange film) is just how out of touch it feels. Granted, if it were easy to make a viral video we would all be doing it; yet what Coppola and her team have come up with is just so lame and off the mark and nauseatingly self-satisfied. Alto was frank about its characters’ privileges without feeling the need to satirize them. In a fatal error, Mainstream somehow flips this around. Frankie bartends a half-empty club a few nights a week yet lives in a spacious studio near Hollywood Boulevard. (She also leaves her job on a relative whim and claims to have paid her rent by selling her car, surely a cardinal sin in LA.) In this fairytale world it is seen as dreadfully uncool to be a “rich kid” (a phrase we hear more than once) and yet is made by and starring them. Move along, please. There is truly nothing to see here.
Mainstream premiered at the Venice Film Festival.