Sundance 2020: Spree, Feels Good Man

Only a mad man like Eugene Kotlyarenko could have made the bloody, brilliant social media satire that is Sundance NEXT title “Spree.” He’s always had fresh critical ideas about how communication through modern technology leads to distorted experiences, whether it’s the AOL Instant Messenger boxes that dramatize the slacker comedy of his 2011 debut “0s and 1s,” or the desperate messages of Tinder within his previous 2017 film, “Wobble Palace.” For his latest, Kotlyarenko traps viewers in the ride share of an amateur murderer who desperately wants content for his viewers, resulting in an “American Psycho” for the age of social media influencers. 

Joe Keery gives his best film performance yet as Kurt, an extremely lonely twenty-something who just wants to be liked online. Though he posts videos all the time on his page @KurtsWorld96, he hasn’t been able to find the audience he believes that he deserves. Working as a driver for the Uber-company like Spree, Kurt concocts what he thinks is a brilliant idea to gain more followers—he’ll murder his passengers, and film the whole thing with GoPros outfitted in his car. An audience will undoubtedly find him, he reckons, and it’ll make him famous. He calls it #TheLesson, and he isn’t worried about any consequences, so much as getting content for his livestream. 

Written by Kotlyarenko and Gene McHugh (author of the book Post-Internet), “Spree” devises many clever ways for Kurt to unleash chaos that are related to social media and ride share culture, while using the screen-life presentation of his live streaming. His car becomes a type of trap, outfitted with numerous GoPro cameras, which he explains is to ensure a rider's safety. No one questions that—instead it’s more awkward when Kurt keeps trying to blast his junky techno music and plugging his social accounts, brazenly showing his desperation. And no one knows that the water is poisoned, which is initially how Kurt starts racking up his body count. 

All the while, Kurt is “on,” talking to his cameras as one single follower is on the stream (his friend Bobby BaseCamp [Joshua Ovalle], who has actually succeeded at becoming a famous influencer, something that haunts Kurt). Keery is a darkly comic delight to follow as his character takes on the performative act of being an influencer, talking to himself and trying to make his personality sound far more interesting than it is. And when Kurt does start to get an audience, he embodies how social media's most beloved influencers are themselves influenced by whatever their followers want to see. As Keery's performance is progressively devilish but always recognizable, "Spree" brilliantly shows influencer culture for the totally demented lifestyle that it is. 

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The satire has a complicated relationship with the inescapability of social media, and airs them out through a comedian named Jessie Adams, played by Sasheer Zamata. She’s achieved popularity through having an online presence, and even encourages people to film her during her sets. With her thousands of followers, Jessie's a different kind of target for Kurt—he doesn’t want to kill her, he desperately wants her to tag him so he can get the likes. As Zamata becomes the hero of the film—she practically steals the show in the absolutely crazy climax—she also has her own awakening that makes “Spree” even wiser and incisive about the unavoidable possibility of social media.

“Spree” is thrilling on a small and massive scale, like how he makes you afraid of free ride share water bottles, or naturally builds Kurt's mayhem to a car chase that's more visceral than recent blockbusters. And like the best of screen-life movies, “Spree” naturally escalates its anxiety factor while maintaining the constant presence of cameras and screen footage. It has a better conceit than most screen-life peers, because you know that Kurt wants all of this filmed, even if he has to pause in the middle of a murder attempt to adjust his dash cam. 

Kotlyarenko's full-fledged commentary slingshots viewers into the cringiest but most revealing parts of the internet—all the waves of crude comments in the live streams, the Pepe jokes, the audience's insatiable need for shocking entertainment. Kurt's mayhem is incredibly funny and entertaining because it's so smart in critiquing what content is truly out there, down to a video where Bobby BaseCamp pretends to help homeless people, all for the views. Throughout its wild ride, "Spree" is not just savvy in its critique of the internet, so much as the casual nature of violence in America, a type of phenomenon that we accept in our news feeds daily. 

Arthur Jones’ “Feels Good Man” is a zippy and very meaningful documentary about “Pepe the Frog,” the green meme character who started as the lackadaisical creation by San Francisco Matt Furie. Especially as Furie goes to the background during the passages about how Pepe was embraced by the alt-right, “Feels Good Man” is more about a developing meme language in general. And just like Pepe becomes far more than just a lackadaisical character created by Furie, the movie is far bigger than Pepe, unveiling itself to be a vital document of our new language of meme culture. The film’s release in Park City in January 2020 feels particularly timely—it’s a movie that intelligently wrestles with how much internet culture changed in the past decade. 

Jones’ approach is nothing less than heroic, as he takes a head-first dive into the internet’s wasteland of 4chan to restore Pepe’s potential for goodness, and to create a deeper, fuller understanding of his iconography. The first act is to restore Pepe back to Furie’s life story, indicated in earlier stories where the soft-spoken artist talks about how the character emerged from his lifelong fascination with drawings frogs, and melded with his own coming-of-age in a comic called Boys’ Club. The phrase “feels good man” was a punchline to a comic in which the character Pepe tries urinating with his pants pulled down to his ankles, an experience that Furie even traces back to second grade. Along with the sporadic animation sequences that present a melancholy Pepe as like a cartoon character with a warped reality, the film’s big heart then goes to understanding how this happened, and what hope there is for Pepe. 

There is so much shit out there, and Jones guides the viewer through 4chan history not as a freak show that certain news clips make it out to be, but as underground forum for voices of influence across the internet. “Feels Good Man” is full of thoughtful talking head interviews (even if an occultist’s presence can be confusing) who reflect upon the influence of this Pepe, and provide a context to what it means that Pepe became so toxic. For starters, Jones puts a face to the anonymous users on 4chan, with a few included people who talk about why they embraced Pepe. Yes, it wasn’t predictable that Pepe would go from a bodybuilding meme to Donald Trump’s twitter account, but the movie connects the dots concerning the underground various online movements, without ever sounding like it’s trying to explain the internet as a concept itself. 

Such savviness and clarity gives the movie a lot of kick, especially as it starts to seemingly speak in another language. The way the film blitzes through internet images, videos, novelties and the like might feel like the “Jupiter: Beyond the Infinite” segment in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but if you’ve ever scrolled 4chan, or any set of memes outside your curated news feed, that’s the total experience. “Feels Good Man” doesn’t feature “Baby Yoda Pepe,” but its hyper-speed sequences have the freshness as something that was finished just yesterday. 

Furie is more than just the person who creates Pepe, and then tries to take him back—he’s a stand-in for a mindset that has changed by this new decade, where we have become increasingly aware of our need to not just sit back and trust that art will control itself on the internet. We have to know what we’re sharing, and where it came from. Jones’ movie is a beacon of internet literacy about a whole new language—that memes are flexible, omnipotent, and pieces of a phenomenon more powerful than their creators. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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