SXSW Film Review: Like Me (USA, 2017) Is disorientating and beautiful

When I was nineteen I spent three straight days without sleeping. I had just moved to Tokyo and couldn’t cope with the light pollution or the sounds from the trains that ran behind my flat. I would spend the nights listening to relaxing music and watch films during the day. On the third morning at around 4AM I made an instant coffee and decided to put on Enter the Void.

The first thing I heard after listening to a recording of Enya’s Paint The Sky With Stars on repeat for some three hours, and not having slept through two slow nights, was the Thomas Bangalter scored opening credits. I’d never again feel as disorientated as I was in those two and a half minutes; but watching Robert Mockler’s Like Me, I came close.

Like Me marks the first time Robert Mockler has been credited as a director and writer of a feature length film. The film, which premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin Texas, is eighty minutes of visual portraits pieced together by tactile transitions, lucid VFX and a millennial journey.

Addison Timlin plays Kiya, a young girl who amasses a huge social following after posting a video of herself holding up a convenience store with a replica weapon. She takes her newfound popularity on the road and begins to film her encounters with a string of unusual characters, eventually taking a paedophile, ‘Marshall’ (Larry Fessenden), hostage, to mixed reactions from the online community. An antagonistic vlogger, Burt (Ian Nelson), begins to take Kiya’s videos apart, and her journey becomes visceral as Burt begins to impact both her content and her psyche.

Kiya guides us through her journey. She tests the humanity of the characters she meets, finding that a vagabond doesn’t want much more than pancakes from a diner, or that a painter who believes there is no age of consent had lost his own daughter at a young age. Kiya studies these characters and presents them to us; but often she seems to be neither a part of the film nor the viewership. She’s more like the kid holding a magnifying glass over an anthill.

Addison Timlin is perfect as Kiya, even if the character is not a strictly formed one with laborious dialogue. She has again shown her ability to completely comprehend the characters she’s becoming. Like her performance in Little Sister, she brings a sense of palpability to the role and becomes so natural as Kiya that the film, in moments, feels kind of like an Addison Timlin vlog, like she’s simply playing herself (with exception of the scenes where she’s forcing food into Marshall’s throat and telling him, “you’re going to eat or you’re going to bleed”).

What makes Like Me so mystifying to the senses is the intense cinematography and editing. Every shot is beautiful. Every background, shadow and light setting progresses the film like a series of paintings, ushering the narrative from frame to frame as if it were an exhibition across a gallery wall. The lighting and colours filter the film in two schemes, the afternoon pink skies and radiant neon signs to moments of moonlight blue and shadow. Both ethereal and at every shot, meticulously thought out.

The experimentation behind the lens continues through to the cutting room floor with disorientating and innovative shots that mess with the audience and remove any limits to the camera’s function. Shots will revolve around rooms and bury through the floor, while actors become stuck in a glitch-like trance, moving in two-second motions, back and forth on loop.

It’s these scenes that make Like Me feel like one long hallucinogenic journey. Although not directing the film, drugs play a part in Kiya’s internal narrative and are managed in a tacitly accurate sense. Ketamine is blue and calm, and doesn’t make a lot of sense, MDMA is sense-altering and intense, where mushrooms give the film its ‘baby on the ceiling’ moment, as a snake slides from Marshall’s bullet wound and into the alternate dimension that has surrounded Kiya.

At times the film does get lost in its own eccentricity, sacrificing the plot beneath the layers of art. The balance between progressing the narrative while constantly combing it to assure its uniform in style throughout, tips slightly through the second half of the film. Scenes like Kiya chasing Burt through the streets of a sunny city before inexplicably arriving at a foggy beachfront leave viewers with a decision to make about the symbolism of each moment, and what’s been done just because it looked good.

The film is still one of the most refreshing indie debuts in a long time. It is an experiment in style and as well shot as any box office film released this decade. While the plot at times fades into its own aestheticism, the acting and the unique style excel the film into rare territory for contemporary cinema.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Like Me is screening at SXSW in Austin, Texas