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SXSW 2017: ‘Like Me’

“What If There’s More To Tell?”

Film synopses are often misleading. To the point that I try not to read them. But when you’re sorting through festival screenings, synopses are usually ground zero. I gave the blurb for Robert Mockler’s Like Me little more than a casual glance and wrote it off as a tween ‘social media obsessed’ drama. Then I found a different movie to see in that time slot. But serendipity is beautiful thing. That other film’s screening was completely booked up. I was stuck in line with no plan. Like Me was next up on the docket. So I bought the ticket. I took the ride. I found out that Like Me‘s synopsis was very misleading. And that’s a good thing.

That was apparent a couple of minutes into the film. Mockler opens the action at a drive thru grocery store in the middle of nowhere. It’s night. Christmas music is playing. A burly, bearded gentlemen is minding the shop when a shabby little Oldsmobile drives up. After a tense silence, a woman’s voice simply says, ‘I want some milk.’ The woman makes her way into the store. She wears a mask. She points her camera phone at the burly man like a gun. She says not a word. It almost feels like a bad joke … until it doesn’t. When that shift comes, the scene escalates in wildly unpredictable ways.

Wildly unpredictable is the only way to describe the story that follows. That heist video winds up on YouTube. It makes an overnight sensation of Kiya (Addison Timlin) the young woman that executed the ordeal. Viewer comments drive Kiya to escalate her antics in increasingly dangerous fashion. So yes, for simplicity’s sake you could say that Like Me is a drama about social media obsession. But that’s not at all what Like Me is. There’s no ‘unfriending’ high school drama. There’s no annoying little texting bubbles or Tweeting graphics. No, Mockler takes that setup and spins an arresting tale of modern isolation from it.

Much of that tale unfolds on a days-long ‘crime spree’ leading Kiya on an uncomfortable late-night diner binge, to a themed ocean-side motel, and on a doomed road trip with a complete stranger. All the while her camera is rolling (minus the one precarious/hilarious moment it isn’t). And all the while her viewers fuel the fire. But Kiya never seems to get any real pleasure out of the online attention. Every escalating adventure leaves her less engaged with the real world. As Kiya’s journey descends into a surrealist nightmare, it becomes a delicate balancing act between hyper-stylized visuals and stark, melancholic realism.

Mockler proves himself more than up to the task. The first-time feature director guides Like Me through its myriad of tonal shifts and stylistic flourishes with the grace of a seasoned filmmaker. His story is erratic and prone to flights of fancy, but the finished product is fluid and focused. And his unruly story unfolds – even in its fantastical moments – with a captivating level of naturalism. The naturalism proves a stark counterpoint to the expressionistic flourishes that Director of Photography James Siewert brings to the table. Siewert and Mockler use vibrant coloring, disorienting camerawork, expressive animation and dazzlingly simple effects to bring Kiya’s nightmare to life. But they always seem to know when to reign things in. Like Me often plays like a farce, but it never feels that way.

In fact, the film is most alive in the quiet moments in between. The moments when Giona Ostinelli’s score builds a dreamy sense of doom under the stillness. The moments when Mockler lets his camera linger on the face of Addison Timlin in all of its fragile instability. The face that effortlessly projects the innocence and menace and loneliness and dismay that form the twisted inner world of Kiya.

If you’re not familiar with Timlin, now’s the time to take notice. Zach Clark used her fragile features to striking effect in last year’s Little Sister. But nothing can prepare you for what Timlin brings to Like Me. She commands every single moment of this film. She imbues Kiya with a real-world complexity that lends the story a credibility that the narrative doesn’t quite earn. And she finds a welcome partner in the ever-adventurous Larry Fessenden, who gives the performance of his career as a paint-huffing loner named Marshall (Larry Fessenden). That’s no joke, by the way. Fessenden really is great in this film. It’s the sort of performance that makes you wish he’d stop letting people poke objects through his head … or stomach … or other body parts in movies and just be an actor.

And Like Me is the sort of film that will make you wish more directors would take big chances. Much like his story, Mockler’s film plays like an escalating game of risk. Every twist and turn and unorthodox decision could’ve led the first-timer’s film to ruin. But he pushed limits. He took chances. He made a devastating little film that’s not like anything else you’ve seen before. It’s far from perfect. But it’s likely to be the most exciting debut you’ll see this year. Or maybe any.

9/10

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Patrick Phillips is a Staff Writer for CutPrintFilm and geekinsider.com. He spends his time drinking coffee, buying records, writing stories and wondering why he never started a band. Follow him on Twitter at Patrick Phillips @savagedetectiv

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