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(The 2018 SXSW Film Festival kicked off March 9 and ran all the way through to March 17. Hammer to Nail has a slew of reviews and interviews coming in hot and heavy so keep your dial tuned to HtN!)

A peppy examination of the role that the photo-sharing network Instagram plays in our lives – or, rather, the lives of teenagers – today, Social Animals (presented as “social_animals” in its opening title sequence) offers compelling characters adrift in the ever-shifting rules of the social-media universe. Director Jonathan Ignatius Green, making his documentary-feature debut, analyzes how participating in the very public marketplace of our modern lives can lead to enormous benefits and terrible drawbacks, sometimes for the same person. That which makes us stronger (or, more popular) can also tear us down.

As Green informs us, there are over 700 million active users on Instagram. We focus on three, all teens: Kaylyn Slevin, Humza Deas and Emma Crockett (I link to their accounts, two of which are currently private, because that information is shown many times in the movie). Kaylyn, 15 at the time of filming, is obsessed with publicity, and with her wealthy background, dance training, and golden locks lit by the California sun, has easy access to the tools to grow in popularity. Humza, 17 when the movie starts, is a New York-based urban-exploration photographer, poor but motivated, who makes a reputation for himself as a bridge climber (strictly illegal) and chronicler of the city’s abandoned spaces. Emma, from Ohio, is the most ordinary in her aspirations, a lovely, lonely middle-class girl whose online experience leads her down a very depressing path. Together, they form a triptych of three distinct panels, each showcasing a very different aspect of our modern virtual world.

Green is granted intimate cinematic access to his subjects and their families, and so is able to chronicle their ups and downs (some have more of one than the other) with input from family and friends. In addition to the often-beautiful images produced by Humza (a truly amazing photographer), Emma and Kaylyn (actually, in her case, it’s usually produced for her), Green and his crew of four cinematographers (one of which is himself) create a gorgeous visual landscape of studied compositions that make of Social Animals a beautiful film to look at, in every frame, however dark its story can get. I found particularly fascinating how the careful staging of certain scenes mimics how Emma, Kaylyn and Humza, themselves, plan out their own shots. Art imitates life, which imitates art. When, in the credits, we see that certain villains of the film (those who bully) have been portrayed by actors, it drives this point home even more, reinforcing the artificiality of the social-media construct.

As an avid user of Instagram, I found the film gripping and disturbing (to be fair, I should list my account, too, nowhere near as interesting as those profiled in the movie: @chrisreedfilm). I had no idea that one could, like Humza, go from there to fame and not-so-mild fortune. Good for him, though his odyssey is not without challenges. Kaylyn’s story, redolent of ubiquitous celebrity culture, is less of a surprise, though still fascinating to watch. Emma’s sadder trajectory, which serves as the movie’s cautionary tale, is also all too common (the movie Audrie & Daisy profiles similar cases), though the details of it are unique to her, and her alone. Green does a marvelous job assembling their narratives into a cohesive whole, giving us a vibrant look at this turbulent time in our online development. May he make a sequel, 10 years from now, as I’d love to know what the future holds, for better or for worse.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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