The so-called “Instagram generation” strikes fear into the hearts of most anyone over a certain age, a fact director Jonathan Ignatius Green milks for all it’s worth in his debut documentary feature, Social Animals. While he chooses three interesting subjects to presumably explore the dark side of Instagram, the movie takes its young subjects’ insights (or lack thereof) at face value without ever asking or answering the toughest questions surrounding the social media behemoth at its core. The result comes across, at times, like a re-warmed nonfiction version of Eighth Grade that lacks clarity and leans heavily on the assumption of audience unfamiliarity.
Social Animals spotlights three Instagram users — Kaylyn, Humza, and Emma — as they discuss their relationships with the social media platform and, aided by frequent graphics tallying their followers, recount their epic teenaged changes in fortune. The documentary convincingly communicates the seriousness of life on the internet for these kids, showing that a seemingly trivial system based on “likes” can do a person detrimental harm; bullying, stalking, racism, pedophilia, and suicide are all factors that come into play in one or more of these teens’ lives. Conversely, the phrase “professional networking” pops up in the trio’s vocabulary almost as much as “popularity,” framing social media as simply a means to an end even as it becomes increasingly clear that the film’s subjects place much of their self-worth in public perception.
Maybe it’s my age. As a twentysomething woman who learned everything I needed to know — and plenty I didn’t — from the internet, the information presented as revelatory in Social Animals seems at best obvious to nearly anyone who uses social media, and at worst akin to a special news report whose only real thesis is “Gen Z cares about weird things we don’t and is therefore doomed.”
Still, the individual parts of Social Animals are stronger than their whole, compelling even as its premise and perspective-alternating narrative structure wear out their welcome. Each of the three main characters is engrossing in their own way. There’s Kardashian-like Kaylyn, a 15-year-old model and aspiring designer who, from the comfort of her lavish mansion, asserts that confidence is the most important key to success. There’s Humza, who tells us he made it out of the expected path for a poor black kid from Brooklyn through highwire urban photography, only to discover that it’s lonely at the top. Then there’s Emma, a country girl who has been burned by boys and bullies one too many times and starts to feel the sting of reality against the perfect expectations set forth by Instagram culture.
Emma, in the end, is the best example of what social media does to the average person. Her story is also the only one with a clear narrative arc, but it’s much thornier than the documentary is willing to explore. Instagram and sites like them might be bad, but how can we learn to live with them? Social media isn’t some all-powerful force, but a network made up entirely of people — classmates, love interests, family members, celebrities, strangers. So in an Instagram world, how do humans move forward? These are the questions that Social Animals raises but, unfortunately, fails to engage with.