Andrew Garfield is back after not being in a movie since 2018’s Under the Silver Lake. His new film, the Gia Coppola-directed Mainstream continues the trend started in Under the Silver Lake where he is deconstructing the fame and celebrity that he’s come into since his role as Spider-Man in 2012 and 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man films. Whereas Under the Silver Lake was about trying to decipher myths and messages from the hundred-plus years of Hollywood, Mainstream deals more with today’s age of social media stardom. And while Garfield anchors the movie by delivering his usual thoughtful performance, the movie overall leaves a bit to be desired.
Back when UtSL first released online in 2018, it seemed to get fairly negative reviews from the general public. Garfield was doing something completely different from anything he’d done before on the big screen and the movie was quite polarizing. So when the few reviews for Mainstream were negative after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year, I still saw the plot synopsis and held out hope that it would be good. Other than Breathe, Garfield typically chooses really good, if underseen movies as the few he appears in these days (see: 99 HomesandSilence).
Mainstream is about Frankie (Maya Hawke, who continues to show her skills as an up-and-comer and prove that she’s more than just the daughter of two immensely talented performers), a young woman in Los Angeles who is trying to make it as an online personality while being a bartender. None of her YouTube videos have gained much traction until she captures a video of Link (Garfield), a man in a chipmunk costume at a mall causing a scene. She posts this video on her YouTube channel and finds that it gets a couple thousand views. When she runs into Link again, they develop a relationship and she realizes his utter disdain for anything and everything related to cell phones or social media, which of course is where the plot really takes off.
Link convinces Frankie to quit her job and they embark on their plan to make satirical YouTube videos. Link plays the character “No One Special” in these videos in which they put on a game show that encourages people to be more genuine online and not try to cultivate their internet personality for likes, follows, and subscribers. Apart from Garfield starring, this is the hook that really got me interested in this movie. I’ve written before about why I don’t use social media in the same way I used to. The way I see it, it’s only a vehicle to making people less genuine than they already are and it, for the most part, discourages true, real interaction. So I’m always onboard for an Ingrid Goes West-style commentary on social media in the movies.
Unfortunately, Coppola’s Mainstream isn’t as biting or hard-hitting as it makes itself out to be. It uses visual style and Garfield’s mysterious quirkiness to make its “social media bad” point, but these days, we know social media is bad. I want to see a movie that takes that idea for granted and uses it as a jumping off point. Mainstream is a brisk and entertaining watch, but it felt more like eating potato chips than a full meal. And potato chips are good! I like eating them. I even ate them while watching this movie. But I’d rather have the full meal than the chips. When you are able to get Jake Paul himself to make a cameo in your film, I’d expect you have something to say about why he’s a cancer to society. But it seems like the film pulls its punches because it has real-life influencers like Paul with small cameos in the movie.
This isn’t to say Mainstream is without nuance. After about 20 minutes had gone by, I’d lost much hope for a deep commentary on social media. What was going to be a two-and-a-half star movie bumped itself up to three and a half stars with its banger of an ending and final shot. It’s just that the final shot could have been that much more effective if the rest of the movie had done the legwork to make it so. This is a rare case where I wish the movie had even been a little bit longer. Its 94 minutes seem skeletal instead of fully fleshed-out.
I’m not trying to unnecessarily punch down on this movie. I really did enjoy it overall. Obviously, I’m automatically intrigued and potentially biased towards anything starring Andrew Garfield, but I really do think this movie has some merit. Coppola’s direction is experimental visually and in its editing, so I never want to knock anything too much for just trying something new. What they tried didn’t always work, but at least it’s attempting to do something unique. It’s just that it doesn’t use its experiments to say anything new or even relevant, to be honest. As I mentioned before, “social media bad” isn’t really going to cut it anymore if you’re trying to get your message out. There are so many new angles and nuances to the topic that could be covered that just aren’t.
Going in to this movie, I thought I could be getting an A24-type of experience. But in the end, it just feels like A24 lite. It’s like the “we have it at home” meme where you ask for an A24 movie about social media like Eighth Grade, but the A24 social media movie we have at home is Mainstream. It’s good. It’s passable. But it’s not quite what it could be.