Like Me is an indictment of a life spent “extremely” online: a thriller in which the thrill is the threat of empty transgression; a body horror flick in which the body horror is the way social media and Tumblr and Reddit and YouTube transform us, make us grotesque, perverting basic physical functions into scary, dysmorphic representations of the flesh sacks we carry around with us whenever we’re not online. Early in the film, writer-director Robert Mockler introduces us to the online world of our main character, Kiya (Addison Timlin, terrifying), via a disturbing barrage of hyperreal, gif-like images—close-ups of sugary cereal and milk chewed sloppily, of a viscous tongue mid-slurp, of Kiya doing weird kinesthetics in a dirty motel room while the camera capsizes and arises around her, this Manic Pixie Dream Girl who embodies each of those words as literally as possible. Though Mockler implies that these are all curated posts Kiya’s put online, we believe that this is how she sees the world. Aided by some seriously heady opioids and hallucinogens, she can’t help but digest her lived experiences without mitigating them digitally.
Mockler seems to understand that such an obsession gives Kiya a kind of authority, a sense of control over her world, even as it alienates her from pretty much everyone else. The film opens with a stunt perpetrated on some schmuck, Freddie (Jeremy Gardner), a clerk in a drive-up convenience mart. Wearing a bone-white mask, like a pixelated Eyes Wide Shut get-up, Kiya asks for milk (maybe the most filmable of all liquids) but then turns her phone’s camera on Freddie, waiting. The tension becomes unbearable as Freddie increasibly humiliates himself, unsure what’s happening but unafraid of the petite woman silently watching him…until she pulls out a gun, still filming, and orders Freddie on his knees. He begs for his life, and at the possible end of it, pisses himself. That’s all Kiya wants, even if she wasn’t sure until that moment that a grown man making minimum wage peeing his pants was something she wanted, so she shows Freddie that the gun isn’t real. Escaping back to her car, screeching away, Kiya breaks into laughter, horned up by what she’s done. Cue Mockler’s nightmarish credits.
Holing up in the aforementioned motel, binging on shit food and drugs, Kiya uploads the video of Freddie ruining his slacks and wakes to it having gone viral. She’s apparently achieved something: After watching the many varied YouTube takes and Vic-Berger-like remixes—Mockler prominently featuring a Milo Yiannopoulos stand-in, Burt (Ian Nelson), who calmly encourages the person who filmed the video to kill herself—Kiya continues on her ill-defined quest. She picks up an old homeless man (Stuart Rudin) and buys him dinner, insisting her tell her a story. Watching, we’re as nervous as he is, unsure whether she’s trying to be kind or about to commit something severely fucked up on this poor guy.
As Kiya moves through Mockler’s pink-ish, neon dystopia, DP James Siewert shooting Timlin as if she’s stranded in the middle of a Michael Mann joint, everything seems on the table. Pushed by her nascent virality into attempting to capture greater extremes on film, Kiya lures a motel manager, Marshall (Larry Fessenden, better than excellent), to her room—another room, another motel, somewhere on this stupid planet—with the possibility of sex. Instead, he finds Kiya’s redecorated her room like an outtake from The Cell, testing the lonely guy’s willingness to go along with whatever insanity’s in store. Of course, some icky gastrointestinal calamity occurs, but Marshall never flinches, so Kiya kidnaps him and takes him with her.
From there, Kiya and Marshall bond despite their volatile meeting, sharing pieces of their neuroses without delving too deeply into their backgrounds. Though Marshall eventually reveals an event in his life that sheds some light on why he seems to be game for whatever, Kiya is a blank slate. We aren’t ever sure why she’s doing what she’s doing, or where she comes from, or where she gets her money, but Mockler never insists that explanations hide in her past, either. She pursues identity—validation—through her presence online, her whole life suspended between the control she exerts in forming that identity, and the helplessness she feels in needing the approval of a bunch of strangers in order to make it from one day to the next, from one motel to the next. Meanwhile, Burt exists at the edges of this film, our anti-Chorus chastising Kiya for her viral videos while foretelling an inevitable confrontation that will rip down the veil of “likes” and clicks that exists between them.
Gorgeous and gross in equal measure, propelled by the sense that anything could happen, Like Me is a visual feast. Mockler conjures setpieces out of practically nothing, crafting each frame with a meticulous symmetry that belies the chaos at the heart of Kiya’s impulsive odyssey. Maybe we aren’t given a reason for what she’s doing because Kiya doesn’t have one. Same with Marshall: Like Me is a sad, funny, upsetting road movie about two people—two addicts—who can’t find any purpose in their lives besides the pretense of purpose. Their lives are means to an end, most likely an end not worth the means, an end Mockler portrays with the familiarity and intimacy of someone who’s struggled with the same, as we all have, as you are, reading this right now, before you switch browsers to something less boring.
Director: Robert Mockler
Writer: Robert Mockler
Starring: Addison Timlin, Larry Fessenden, Ian Nelson
Release Date: January 26, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Validate him on Twitter.