This review was originally published in March 2017, when the film opened at SXSW in Austin, Texas. It is being republished to coincide with the film’s limited theatrical release on January 26th, 2018. It will be available on streaming rental and VOD platforms on February 20th, 2017.
It’s easy to read Like Me as a fatalistic commentary on social media. Kiya, the film’s star, is a teenage YouTuber who makes the antics of personalities like PewDiePie seem quaint. In the film’s first 15 minutes, she holds a convenience store clerk at gunpoint just for the pleasure of recording his meltdown and posting it online.
But Kiya — who seems to have an obsession with older men, and a dark need for validation — is speaking to an audience. As her videos hit the internet, they spawn a web of reactions ranging from disgust to delight, and they’d feel right at home on the internet today.
Kiya’s driving force can be boiled down to one audience member in particular. With each outrageous new stunt she pulls, this sneering viewer has a cutting commentary on her weak “attention whore” stunts. Through online videos, he taunts Kiya, dictating new lines of one-upmanship, and pushing her to cross them. As the film progresses, so do Kiya’s ambitions; she ups her game to include kidnapping, assault, and even snuff films before she confronts her rival.
Rob Mockler, the film’s writer, directer, and editor, describes the film’s conception as part of a knee-jerk reaction to social media. “I thought it was a real absurd step for humanity, and I thought it was kind of scary in some ways,” he says. It made him seek validation in something as simple as posting a photo online — and then doubt himself if people didn’t like it. “[Social media] changed how I feel we look at ourselves. We're now sort of crafting, we're curating memories, we're crafting our identities like never before. There's this real-time sort of authorship of who we are as people.”
Like Me pushes this idea in a fantastical, over-the-top way. The film, clocking in around 80 minutes, leans heavily into high-concept directing. It’s a strange tale told through neon colors, uncomfortable close-ups, and looped moments that Mockler says were inspired by GIFs. Kiya pursues her guaranteed self-destruction like a dog chasing a car, but she never feels like a fully realized character. She’s a living metaphor for loneliness and attention-seeking, but the film never addresses why she is this way. Her choices are erratic: she kidnaps a man, then treats him as a sort of pet, then doles out more abuse.
Kiya would be a modern-day femme fatale — seducing a man twice her age, then enacting punishment — if she weren’t so young. There’s something uncomfortable about the way the film walks this tightrope. One scene paints Kiya as a wide-eyed wild child quietly asking for stories; in another, she wears a bobbed wig and swings from a high-mounted hotel room hammock while encouraging a man to strip. Her beauty and inherent darkness is fetishized, with one character describing her looks as “wicked.” But the film is forgiving about her behavior, possibly because of her appearance: at one point, a character tells her she still hasn’t committed a crime she couldn’t get away with, because she’s a pretty girl.
Asked what the film means, or what Kiya’s motives are, Mockler was cryptic in a way even he admits is cliché. After the film’s SXSW opening, I spoke to one viewer who said it felt like a love story; to me, it felt more like modern horror. When I asked the director how he felt about both interpretations, he was vague, reiterating only that Like Me is deeply rooted in loneliness. “I think they're all trying to connect in some sort of strange way,” he said of the film’s characters. “These are all the sort of flawed people who are kind of outliers, who are just trying to connect to other people.” He pushed back against the idea that he holds a pessimistic view of social media, saying instead that there’s simply a strange slice of it that we should question.
"For me, [Like Me] started as this universal story about loneliness and how we try to connect with people, and how that sometimes manifests in strange, scary, and violent ways,” he says. “It's this feeling of being lost and vulnerable and scared and feeling like you're judged, and wanting to reach out in some way to someone else to see if they feel that, too.”
Like Me’s vision isn’t cynical, then, but tragic. Kiya has no clear goal. She’s desperate for connection, but hasn’t had to face consequences yet for what she’s done. The rush of attention she receives for each new stunt ebbs and flows like the waves of the beach the film ends on, but it’s hard to feel pity for her. She’s almost literally getting away with murder, but the weight of her actions doesn’t feel real. Like any good photo or video, Like Me aims to show only the juiciest bits. How the mess gets cleaned up isn’t meant for us to see.