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I’m Poppy is as weird as its namesake YouTube star, but less intriguing

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Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

In the world of YouTube videography, a genre known for filter-free lifelogging, Poppy — the incredibly popular stage persona of 23-year-old Moriah Pereira — is a unique and mysterious figure. Poppy’s soft-spoken, doll-like mannerisms oscillate between cute and creepy. Her videos mix inane repetition (one of the most famous is 10 minutes of her saying “I’m Poppy” in different tones) with occult symbolism and unsettling references to death, violence, and hidden but powerful forces outside the bounds of Poppy’s featureless white stage.

Poppy’s videos never draw a clear distinction between Poppy’s “real” life and her constructed reality. She’s a pop star who is, to some extent, a fictional character. And as her following has grown, she’s expanded outside the bounds of her YouTube channel. She released a studio album called Poppy.Computer last fall, followed by a live tour. One member of her devoted fanbase (known as Poppy Seeds) has even founded a religion known as Poppyism. Now, she’s appearing in a full-length web series.

I’m Poppy, a 24-minute short film that premieres on YouTube Red tomorrow, is supposed to channel the weirdness of Poppy’s short videos into a more traditional TV series pilot. The video, written and produced by her collaborator Titanic Sinclair, is certainly weird. But unlike most of Poppy’s videos, it straightforwardly explains its weirdness — unless that’s just another feint in an elaborate narrative game.

I’m Poppy still Courtesy of Sundance Institute

What’s the genre?

Surrealist, metatextual parody of the media industry and YouTube stardom, packaged as a half-hour TV show pilot.

What’s it about?

In I’m Poppy, singer and social media star Poppy is getting her own TV show — which, she explains in her typical falsetto monotone, will let her spread high-quality content to the whole world. The show will be an extension of Poppy’s minimalist videos, where she stands in a white void delivering vague inspirational exhortations to her followers. Old-media squares find her popularity slightly inexplicable, but since she’s got millions of fans, who are they to judge?

Behind the scenes, though, Poppy’s rise is carefully engineered by shadowy power brokers. She’s being groomed by an Illuminati-like organization that pushes YouTube stars to glory, but violently quashes any act of rebellion. Seemingly independently of this, she’s signed a deal with Satan to become even more famous than she already is. Outside the studio, she’s the “chosen one” of a New Age-y cult determined to “save” her from imprisonment. One of the cult members is an obsessively jealous living mannequin named Charlotte (a regular character on Poppy’s YouTube channel), who dreams of usurping Poppy’s fame.

What’s it really about?

The artificiality of pop culture and the nature of internet conspiracy theories. In I’m Poppy, Poppy has two discernible goals in life: to make the world “happy and cute,” and to get more views and subscribers. “I feel complete when I look at my phone and see thousands of likes and comments,” she muses. I’m Poppy portrays the star as a beautiful but empty figure. In one clip from the premiere, she tells people to achieve fame by believing in themselves, which is only slightly less helpful than some actual YouTube stars’ paywalled advice. She wants to be on TV because that’s where famous people go, which is just a blunter restatement of the real, and somewhat arbitrary, media prestige pecking order.

Meanwhile, I’m Poppy’s plot riffs on the conspiracy theories that Poppy’s work attracts and encourages, like the idea that she’s being mind-controlled by the illuminati or is part of a cult. In its world, both those things are loosely true, but Poppy is also extremely driven in her own right. She’d just rather have social media connections than power.

Is it good?

I’m Poppy doesn’t have the hypnotic, ambiguous simplicity that many of Poppy’s videos do. It’s packed with subplots, self-aware jokes about show business, and surreal visual set pieces. And taken in isolation, it’s arguably not weird enough.

Poppy’s character is singular, and devoted fans with more arcane knowledge will surely pick far more out of it than any casual viewer. But the idea of a behind-the-scenes kingmaker manufacturing a pop star — or a reality-twisting pseudo-documentary chronicling that manipulation — is far from new. Sinclair and Poppy are openly influenced by Andy Warhol and cover well-explored ideas about artificiality and stardom. Figures like the cultists, the devil, and the power brokers are such broadly drawn archetypes that their mere existence isn’t that interesting. Outside the context of Poppy’s vast alternate reality game, I’m Poppy comes off as aesthetically pleasing, but surprisingly conventional.

Yet, even to a relative outsider, I’m Poppy feels like another puzzle piece in Poppy’s multilayered backstory. It lays out explanations for the star’s existence, but they’re kitschy, unsatisfying ones — the kind of stories that fans who demand “answers” to fictional mysteries often get. And like most things involving Poppy, it’s hard to tell how much more could be going on behind the scenes.

What should it be rated?

PG or PG-13, primarily for what MPAA rating boxes might call “intense situations.” Kids may either be disturbed by its general creepiness, or oblivious to anything but the singing and colorful costumes.

How can I actually watch it?

I’m Poppy will be on the premium streaming service YouTube Red starting tomorrow. It’s supposed to be the start of a series, but there’s no release date for future episodes.