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Sunday, October 1, 2023

'Sweat' Gives Influencers Something They’ve Never Had: Depth

Watching the opening scene of Sweat while sitting on a couch feels as contrarian as chomping down a bag of Doritos while motionless on a Peloton. Using a handheld camera, director Magnus von Horn trails his peppy fitness-influencer protagonist Sylwia Zajac (Magdalena Kolesnik) as she revs up an adoring crowd during a public cardio demonstration at a mall in Poland. Her thick blonde ponytail bobs rhythmically as she weaves between fans, shouting high-octane words of encouragement like a particularly toned mega-church leader. Hers is a prosperity gospel for the body, and she’s a persuasive preacher. I almost got up to follow along.


If you’ve spent any time in fitness-focused corners of the internet, Sylwia will be a familiar figure. In von Horn’s new film, which hits select theaters Friday and streaming platform Mubi next month, she posts at-home workouts for her 600,000 followers in a series of candy-colored elastane outfits; she eats premade grain bowls with balanced macronutrients; she’ll promote said grain bowls on her social media accounts, provided their makers have demonstrated a commitment to sustainable packaging. She is thin and beautiful, the sort of person who always looks lit by a ring light, but she’s canny enough to let her shiny facade drop occasionally to reveal some humanizing vulnerabilities. (She really wants a boyfriend.) Her advertisers don’t love these orchestrated glimpses of fragility, but that doesn’t matter—the fans do.

Influencers are often portrayed in books, movies, and media as evidence of a creeping and pervasive cultural vapidity. Dependency on followers for validation and attention becomes shorthand for societal rot. Gia Coppola’s recent film Mainstream attempts to critique online celebrity in a yarn about a filmmaker who helps a charismatic grifter become a viral prankster. It doesn’t work, though; the storyline may as well have been written by a bot exclusively fed alarmist op-eds about the depravity of Logan Paul. (Plot synopsis: “INTERNET FAME BAD.”) Not that influencer culture send-ups need to be nuanced. Leigh Stein's recent novel Self Care provides a delightful dissection of the #girlboss, and Beth Morgan’s forthcoming novel A Touch of Jen is a ruthless comedy-horror about the perils of obsessing over Instagram. The first great influencer satire was 2017’s Ingrid Goes West, a pitiless, funny two-hander pairing desperate fangirl Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) with a boho-chic lifestyle maven played by Elizabeth Olsen. These characters are broad archetypes—the basket case and the princess—but the movie isn’t going for psychological realism. It’s a skewering of a certain Southern California Millennial scene.

Sweat doesn’t try to fit into this new collection of influencer satire, to its benefit. Instead, it offers something newer: a refreshingly layered character study of the sort of person often reduced to a punchline. It’s not interested in judging Sylwia so much as probing the shallow contours of her world to allow the profound loneliness to surface.

After her kinetic opening performance, the audience sees Sylwia’s energy levels drop, but this isn’t a case of the two-faced entertainer who sulks behind the scenes. Instead, it's a portrait of someone who derives her identity from the feedback loop between herself and her devotees; her enthusiasm is genuine, just finite. With a different actress, Sylwia might’ve turned into someone more ripe for mocking, but Kolesnik molds her into a raw nerve, so well-intentioned that her narcissism is a forgivable flaw. She narrates her days into her phone screen as she runs errands in her car and hangs out in her tidy modern apartment, appearing most at ease while addressing her unseen audience.

Interactions with people offline are dicier, messier, far harder to control. She’s a tense presence at her mother’s birthday party, overly eager for her relatives to celebrate her achievements, so keen to preen she can’t help but make the whole dinner about her. (She carts in a television as a present, never mind that it overwhelms her mother’s living space, and also brings along a workout DVD she’s recently released to make sure her family pops it in during the meal; when she receives some pushback in conversation, she insults her mother’s boyfriend and storms out.)

A looping video of influencers "selling" products to adoring fans.

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Not that interactions with people who buy into her persona go much better. Meeting a fan in real life underscores how bizarre their dynamic really is; the woman persuades Sylwia to sit with her and confesses intimate details about a recent miscarriage, perfectly comfortable unloading her emotional baggage onto this avatar of positivity. When Sylwia confesses in turn that she’s struggling, the woman doesn’t seem to process it. Soon after, Sylwia realizes a stranger who follows her online is stalking her, sitting in his car outside her apartment complex. She sees him masturbate while she is walking her dog, and reacts with genuine fear and rage, smearing dog poop on his windshield. As the movie progresses, though, their dynamic is complicated by her own fixation on him. The parasocial relationships her fans develop with her image sustain Sylwia financially, professionally, and emotionally, but also leave her alienated. In an unexpectedly brutal third act, her troubles sorting real connections from false ones land her in a dangerous situation with a fellow influencer.

Sweat leads Sylwia right up to the edges of reckoning with herself, but avoids sweeping statements or broad moralizing. The film doesn’t need them. It’s a finely realized slice of life with an unusually sophisticated understanding of social media. Along with Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, it’s one of the first movies to truly nail the psychology of sharing online. “I want to be that weak, pathetic Sylwia, because weak, pathetic people are the most beautiful people,” Sylwia tells a news anchor in the film’s final moments, tears filling her eyes as she defends herself for exposing so much emotion online. But then she’s back up and bouncing around, performing for a large national audience, and it’s not clear at all whether she can untangle who she appears to be from who she is, or whether she’s actually tapped into a more honest version of herself or simply figured out how to sell authenticity along with fitness. No matter. The one big thing Sweat has figured out is that there’s no neat boundary separating who we are and who we pretend to be.

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