SXSW Review: King Kelly

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King Kelly

My goal at every film festival is to see at least one film so stunningly original, powerful, entertaining and culturally relevant -- in other words, a film that so completely blows me away -- that I can declare it my favorite movie of the festival. For the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, that film is King Kelly.

Filmmaker Andrew Neel's biting cinematic statement about self obsession and online culture is, as they say, all that. King Kelly is intensely observant, cringingly funny and profoundly disturbing, a film that demands our rapt attention while viewing it and provokes shell-shocked sociological discussions afterward. It's the rare film that rises to a level above mere excellence -- it is, in a word, important.

And oh, how sorely we need more important films like King Kelly. We need more films that blast us with bitter realities, grab us tightly and shake us out of our perpetual slumber of indifference toward our own crumbling culture. We need more films that cleverly trick us into thinking they're entertaining us with humor when, in fact, they're issuing clarion warnings about our society's rampant dysfunction.

King Kelly is a clarion warning, all right. The titular Kelly (Louisa Krause) is a young woman whose worldview extends no further than her own reflection in a mirror. Like so many of her generation, she works and lives entirely online. Her job is to entertain a drooling pack of licentious horndogs with live webcam stripteases from her bedroom in her parents' home (her grand ambition is to be an Internet porn star). When not working, she's recording her every waking moment on her smartphone and posting the videos on Facebook, along with her every mindless thought. (Full disclosure: I'm on Facebook more than almost anyone I know. Hopefully, my posts are somewhat deeper than Kelly's.)

Kelly's other occupation is serving as a drug mule for the small-time dealers in her suburban Connecticut neighborhood. When her ex-boyfriend Ryan (Will Brill) takes her car with a sizeable quantity of narcotics in the trunk, Kelly and her best friend Jordan (Libby Woodbridge) spend a frantic Fourth of July on a wild, drug-fueled journey to find the car and its precious cargo. They enlist the help of Kelly's number-one online fan, a smitten state trooper whose online name is Poo Bare (Roderick Hill). Not surprisingly, their odyssey descends into disaster.

King Kelly's plot may sound superficial, but it's in keeping with the superficial world Kelly and her perpetually drunk, high and aimless friends inhabit. Kelly is blissfully unaware of and uninterested in anything beyond her own limited sphere of spoiled, self centered stupidity. (In a patriotic Fourth of July porn video, she wishes George Washington a happy birthday.) She and her friends also live entirely in the moment, thriving on instantaneous online gratification and stimulation.

And such is the point of King Kelly, a film less about its farfetched plot than about the inane digital milieu in which the story happens. The movie explores an odd paradox of modern Internet-based culture: Kelly is the center of her world, creating a self-loving online persona focused on her own desires and interests. At the same time, she seeks constant validation from others via Facebook and her porn site; in effect, she can't be the center of her world unless the world keeps telling her she is. Self absorption on the Internet, King Kelly tells us, requires an audience.

King Kelly also explores how user-generated Internet content is fundamentally changing how we learn about our world and interact with each other.  When we can share our lives in real time with a potential audience of the entire online world, this no doubt affects the way we see each other. But is it also affecting our self perceptions? Although the vacuous, drug-addled Kelly may not realize it (she doesn't seem to realize much, frankly), she's creating and dealing with a new cultural reality. She's the star of her own reality show; as she spends most of her time on line, are the "real" Kelly and her online persona becoming one and the same?

I call King Kelly a clarion warning for two reasons. First, for all the Internet's potential to improve the human condition, it's changing our culture so rapidly that there's little time to fully consider its effects -- and the effects can be awful. Kelly and her young friends have never known a world without the Internet, and their worldviews are shaped almost entirely by online culture. King Kelly shows us that this worldview can be a dismal, limited, completely amoral one. The Internet may be a powerful source of information and a useful portal to the entire world, but again, Kelly's crowd uses the technology mostly to convince themselves they're at the center of that world. And countless egocentric Facebook pages remind us that there are millions of young people just like Kelly.

King Kelly's other unsettling message is a less direct one: Young adults are living in a world that at best offers them few employment opportunities and at worst is openly hostile toward them. It's easy to condemn Kelly and her friends for their complete lack of direction and ambition; they seem content to exist from one self-indulgent day to the next. But what if they sobered up, worked hard, earned college degrees or learned trades and set out to find good jobs? In an unstable economy with little room for legions of fresh-faced young workers, chances are they'd end up deeply in debt and just as marginally employed. Can we entirely blame them for not having goals? When the "real" world is so unwelcoming, no wonder so many young people retreat into their online cocoons, where rewards come easily and their friends at least pretend to give a damn about them.

If this review seems more like an essay about youth culture than a critique of a film, my point is that King Kelly inspires this kind of cultural analysis. And it provokes such discussion with a rare cinematic brilliance, a blend of superb scripting, acting and directing, along with innovative production methods that hint at the possible future of filmmaking.

King Kelly consists entirely of footage shot with iPhones and inexpensive Canon ELPH digital cameras. The desired effect was that the film would look like a collection of amateur smartphone camera videos shot by Kelly and her friends. The end result? This film about online culture looks absolutely authentic without being gimmicky (or, thankfully, inducing shaky-cam motion sickness). King Kelly shows us the world quite literally as the characters see it, giving us great insight into their lives.

The film's pacing is suitably short-attention-span frenetic, and the dialogue is a dead-on interpretation of stoned, superficial youthful jabber. The acting is unfailingly natural, especially Krause's outstanding performance as Kelly. Krause completely inhabits an immediately dislikable character, an outrageously shallow, whiny, irresponsible spoiled brat who never met anyone she didn't try to manipulate. There is little humanizing-the-monster here; beyond a few pathetic moments when Krause invites a glimmer of sympathy for Kelly, she's one of the most despicable characters in recent cinematic memory. (As a testament to Krause's acting skills, Neel reassured us in a post-screening Q&A that she's a very nice person who's absolutely nothing like Kelly. God, let's hope not.)

The searing King Kelly is in every way essential viewing, a harrowing glimpse at the darker aspects of our increasingly online society. Like my favorite message film of last year's SXSW Film Festival, Inside America, King Kelly is a grim indictment wrapped in a compelling narrative. I encourage everyone -- yes, including my Facebook friends -- to see it.