In the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay colony, they used visions of specters to root out alleged consorts of Satan. In the new film Assassination Nation, the only fuel a modern witch-hunt needs is Instagram.
The photo-sharing social media app plays a central role in Sam Levinson’s debut feature, which plunges a fictitious version of Salem into lawless chaos following a mass leak of the township’s private data. The script is conversant in the online language of whatever we’ve chosen to call the generation succeeding the millennials, and it recognizes Instagram as their combination podium, proscenium and proving ground. Absent-mindedly scrolling through the infinite feed of hyperspeed food prep videos and puppy pictures eventually comes to feel like a medium of being, water to the fish. Among many other things, it’s a fragile social ecosystem that can be thrown into violent disarray by the ugly truth.
Assassination Nation is just the latest in an expanding rank of films that dare not just invoke Instagram by name, but to actively interrogate its effects and utility. Even through the thick fog of sensationalism and paranoia, Levinson takes a circumspect view on the potential for good along with the psychological pitfalls of an app that makes self-presentation into a science under absolute control. Even within the past two years, American films have approached the ’gram as a locus of obsessive jealousy, a channel affording connection to the isolated, and a window to an escapism preferable to a user’s provincial life. Considered as a whole, these films paint a portrait of a tool for individual use, albeit one more powerful than most of its wielders care to realize. It may only be as evil as the person tapping the screen, but it has a seductive way of coaxing out our worst impulses.
Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen began as an Instagram feed. She created a scripted story around a real-life all-female skateboarding crew in New York , the handle @theskatekitchen acting as a continuous showcase for their death-defying stunts and assorted acts of mischief. In the film, Long Island hoodlum Camille (Rachelle Vinberg, a longtime member of the Skate Kitchen entourage) enters their orbit through fav-ing their gnarlier wipeouts and finds a reprieve from a stifling home life with her single mother. In this respect, Instagram has supplanted the chat rooms of the early internet as a gathering space for loners finding solidarity through their interests. The visual element of the app offers intimate peeks into posters’ interior lives that encourage self-selecting tribalism in a way that friend-oriented Facebook and the nonstop noise of Twitter do not. For Camille, it paves the way to her salvation from the drudgeries of the teen years.
To an extent, the same goes for Kayla (Elsie Fisher), the awkward 13-year-old coming of age in the cringe comedy Eighth Grade. The warming glow of her smartphone screen pierces the storm cloud of puberty in suburbia, but the film takes a more ambivalent attitude towards the subject. Though the never-ending stream of beauty tips and ASMR clips has a soothing effect on young people racked with anxiety, every narcotic has its comedown, and Instagram has a deleterious influence on Kayla’s fragile, developing ego. Simulating the appearance of perfection has never been easier; the right filter makes the sunshine brighter and the ocean bluer, while the face-changer feature can add definition to cheekbones and slim the chin.
Conventional hotness is attainable to anyone in this digital space, and while Kayla can see the fakery in her own posts, she can’t stop herself from believing that everybody else is the real deal. She makes some older friends aware of and inured to this cognitive dissonance, who express shock that someone only a few years younger treats hashtags like a native tongue. A recurring conclusion in this vein of media is that outsmarting Instagram is the key to using it in a functional, healthy capacity. On the small screen, Atlanta spent its stellar second season picking apart the superficiality of an Instagrammable life, locating a canny symbol in a party where women pay to get their picture taken with a cardboard cutout of Drake at the rapper’s actual house.
This tendency devolved into full-blown psychosis with last year’s Ingrid Goes West, which pushed the common rabble’s envy for the influencer class to hysterical extremes. Loner weirdo Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) has a moth-to-flame relationship with her phone, meticulously combing through each and every upload from Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) as if she personally knows this stranger, seething with covetousness. Taylor’s tastefully curated home and altogether immaculate image has been calibrated to provoke this exact response, but a dangerous cocktail of neurochemicals sends Ingrid over the edge into absurd comic territory. All along, however, the character’s pathology remains rooted in realistic patterns of thinking. Instagram has grown into a marketplace for social currency, and to sell the product of a personal brand, somebody’s gotta buy.
In their uncomfortable coexistence with technology, these films have surpassed the old guard’s luddite fearmongering for the virtual future. Even if cinema has made peace with social media as a new fact of life, the medium contends that Instagram has the unique capacity to exacerbate a person’s shortcomings of moral fiber. As the movies have it, we are our worst selves online, prone simultaneously to ego inflation and deflation. And yet this small canon knows better than to pin such undesirable outcomes on the app itself, conceding that new innovations amplify pre-existing problems to a less-manageable degree. Going on Instagram is not so dissimilar to imbibing alcohol; it makes the boorish and self-involved among us immeasurably worse, but when done responsibly and within reason, it’s a perfectly acceptable guilty pleasure. Still, there is a bit of guilt in that pleasure. The core appeal of Instagram is the chance it affords to play the voyeur, peeking in on someone else pretending they’re not performing for the camera. In this respect, Instagram is halfway to being cinema itself.