Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Eat the Art
This review does spoil the ending of Mainstream for conversational and critiquing purposes. If you haven’t seen the film, please read at your own risk.
Seven years after the release of Palo Alto, Gia Coppola’s second full-length feature film is the comedic drama Mainstream. Frankie (Maya Hawke) is drifting through life. She’s dropped out of college and works as a bartender/sometimes forced-performer at a music venue/bar. The only thing she really connects with is her phone and internet videos. Frankie films a man named Link (Andrew Garfield) and puts him on the internet. The reception is huge, so the two vow to take over the internet and drag Frankie’s friend and co-worker Jake (Nat Wolff) along with them.
Mainstream can be taken a variety of different ways. As a film, it seems to have several layers that will either intrigue or annoy the viewer. On the surface, the film is a cut and dry film about reaching success from nothing, stepping on your friends that helped get you there, and losing everyone close to you just to maintain the fame, the fortune, and the attention.
The film is also a love-triangle between Frankie, Link, and Jake. There’s an obvious connection between Frankie and Jake, but Link is essentially a black hole that sucks everyone and everything into him seemingly effortlessly. Even when things go too far Frankie sticks with Link because she misses how it was at the beginning; the three of them taking over social media one video at a time.
Andrew Garfield is a force of nature in Mainstream; destructive, powerful, unpredictable, and absolutely hypnotic in between. Where does the lie end and the person begin? The interesting thing about Link is that he’s imaginative and conjured from nothing. You basically know this the minute you meet Link in the film and yet you’re still drawn to him. Garfield has this magnetism to him as Link; someone you can’t look away from. He is essentially a train wreck with no moral compass and he is adored for it.
You Gotta Be Dumb To Be Smart
There’s also this sense of accomplishment in Mainstream. If you’ve ever tried to make YouTube videos or promote yourself on the internet in any way whatsoever, you know how difficult it is to breakthrough, get an audience, or actually go viral. There is an art to what Frankie, Link, and Jake are doing even if it’s seemingly superficial on the surface. Pretending to be something you’re not to get popular and be famous is probably something any sort of celebrity can relate to.
In addition to pretending to being something you’re not to gain a following, Mainstream dives into the amount of power that really comes with that sort of status. Link’s unusual personality screams internet personality and that’s one of the reasons his videos take off the way that they do. But he is also faking genuine emotion. He’s superficial and it’s disguised as acceptance and authenticity.
Link is accused of insulting viewers and selling out. The Link character is much more cerebral than the film initially lets on. He is controlling the masses with his words, his actions, his videos, and his status. He manipulates his audience to get what he wants and it’s a masterful manipulation. He lacks compassion and empathy and he’s all the more entertaining to his viewers because of it.
At the end of the film, it’s revealed that Link isn’t who he says he is. He’s actually rich, has a different name, and set a fire that resulted in him being institutionalized. His final performance is rather outstanding overflowing with impressive dance choreography from the former Spider-Man actor, incredible glittery eye shadow, and a long-winded public rant that culminates with Garfield humping the stage.
Lost In Success
The final shot, which is also the movie poster, is what should be addressed here. It’s an aspect of the film that makes Mainstream so fascinating. It seems as though people are walking out as Link insults everyone with no remorse, but after his rant and after he turns his back on the crowd there’s an uproarious applause and a constant chanting of his name. Link looks at the camera, smiles, and the movie cuts to black as the audience continues to litter him with praise.
It’s mentioned on a few occasions that Link was institutionalized and may not be all there. At the beginning of the film, Link tries to rip apart a guy who tells him he should return to the loony bin. With this in mind, it’s left ambiguous over whether or not the ending of Mainstream is all in Link’s head or is actually occurring in reality. It could really go either way, especially when viral internet videos are concerned.
Mainstream taps into the blood and guts of internet popularity. It also dances around the well-known theme of stepping on whoever made you who you are today while being dressed as a rat or a cockroach. It is understandable if you find Mainstream as an irritable or unwatchable film since that’s kind of the point.
The way the film intertwines a love triangle with that initial craving for attention and money and eventual greed is incredible. It gets to the point where Link just constantly wants more and to top himself when it really isn’t necessary. Mainstream feels like this bold and heartless statement on the social media age that is terrifyingly accurate. You witness a monster slaughter its victims for 90 minutes in Mainstream and the only consequences are a massive cult following and the barfing of a few social media reactions.
© 2021 Chris Sawin