It’s been a rough couple of years for social media stars. From the chilling documentary “The American Meme” to the Netflix film “Cam,” a deep-dive into the commodification of sex by camgirls, cultural gatekeepers have been looking into the social media abyss. From the examples above, at least, they don’t like what they see. "Clickbait" undoubtedly is an attempt to tap into this trend, centered around college students helplessly ensnared by the allure of the imaginary live-stream website “str33ker.com,” where content creators compete to be top dog on a constantly updated popularity chart. Things become complicated when butter-blonde Bailey (Amanda Colby Stewart), a top str33ker talent, becomes the obsession of a Trump-masked stalker. The situation goes downhill from there, culminating in a grisly stabbing — all, it seems, in the name of Internet fame.
It’s a familiar concept — in “Macbeth,” Shakespeare depicted in no uncertain terms the bloodthirst of the power-hungry — but a potentially fruitful one. There is a clear demand for compelling content that addresses our hesitations towards the growing prevalence of consumerism and surveillance capitalism in the modern world. It’s a pity, then, that "Clickbait” is about as counter-cultural as a Che Guevara t-shirt bought at H&M. Despite its experimental approach, "Clickbait" fails to create a convincing “world” for the viewer to rail against, thereby satirizing the very effort of social critique, rather than addressing societal issues themselves.
The issues for "Clickbait" center around a meandering script, which, despite reasonable efforts from the actors, fails to fulfill the “comedy” aspect of “comedy-horror.” In an attempt to capture the walkabout musings of youth, the dialogue is jarringly slow, in particular through lengthy conversations between the two protagonists Bailey and Emma (Brandi Aguilar), who, despite substantial screen time, remain one-dimensional throughout the film. Yes, the movie stands as a critique of the vapidity of internet fame and the pursuit thereof. Yet like its characters, "Clickbait" makes the fatal flaw of failing to seek deeper meaning, culminating in a work that is about as superficial as its subject matter.
Key to this lack of depth is inadequate character exposition: Bailey and Emma simply fail to convince as “college students” — they live in a spacious, well-lit apartment, wear store-bought costumes to Halloween parties, and appear to exclusively “study” from one oversized picture book on “plant taxonomy.” These flaws go beyond attempts at absurdist humor — the lack of a compelling scenario here jeopardizes the entire basis of the plot, specifically the nature of Bailey’s social media addiction itself. The viewer is left confused at the nature of Bailey’s content creation, and even her closest friend is dismissive of her str33ker pursuits. Ultimately the viewer is given no explanation or even portrayal of social media addiction in any form.
As a result, the stakes of this entire endeavor are comically low, to the detriment of the viewer, who struggles to maintain concentration through lengthy dream sequences where the deepest fears of the protagonists are cloyingly and extensively portrayed alongside a repetitive and one-dimensional synth soundtrack. Incidentally, the dated aesthetic of the soundtrack — an ostinato mishmash of muzak, preset synths, and ‘90s detective video games — does the long-winded cinematography no favors, both failing to build suspense for “horror” sequences, but also elongating the already sluggish pacing of the film in its monotonous constancy.
The consequence of this general lack of polish is that, despite the consumer appeal of the subject matter, the film’s value lies not in its message, but simply in how hard it tries to convey it. Instead of being engrossed in the escalating tension between Bailey and her masked stalker, the viewer becomes undeniably aware of the filmmakers themselves. "Clickbait" is overtly the work of artists in flux, feeling out pathways for communication, yet in that process, often reaching dead ends.
This is not to say the movie is without its moments of breakthrough. "Clickbait" comes closest to comedic clout with surrealist “ad breaks” placed throughout the film. These are much-needed breaths of fresh air and offer glimpses of a knowing wit from the directors which is otherwise lacking in the main plot. And, though in the context of the film, extended scenes of mundane dialogue are borderline arduous, there is something “Waiting for Godot”-esque about the daring of it all. Indeed, at points like the ad breaks, fragments of artistic imagination push through — but these moments are framed so laboriously it is easy to overlook their magic.
As seen in the popularity of social media documentaries, consumerism in its current manifestation is sufficiently egregious as such to adequately satirize itself. In artistic portrayals, then, the viewer seeks the more vulnerable, individual experience that so often is veiled by the capitalist structures which dominate our social lives. "Clickbait,” in its determination to provide biting social satire, becomes not a narrative on youth culture in tension with society, but one on the gut-wrenching strain of the directors to depict, and thereby illuminate a culture that they themselves do not seem to entirely understand. The result is an experience which, though perhaps not intentional, is praiseworthy in its viscerality alone. "Clickbait" is risk-taking, not at its best, but at its most authentic.