Tori, the protagonist of writer-director Alex Haughey’s new film Under the Influencer, is one of those folks over five billion-plus social media users look to, follow, and like for their recognizable brand. Whether they are valued for their expertise, their experience, their perspective, or merely their personality, they make their persona a product, a dependable revenue stream where clicks mean profits. Mega-influencers boast of audiences of millions and can earn thousands of dollars with a single post. It’s not necessarily easy keeping the audience engaged, though, as Tori is about to learn in Under the Influencer, an excellent independent film examining the price of social media fame.
Having reached the apex of YouTube popularity with her channel “Tori Time,” influencer Tori (Taylor Joree Scorse) has been riding high on a crest of popularity. She’s all bright colors, sunshine, shock-faced thumbnails, and sharing her personal deets, even in the doctor’s office for her annual wellness visit (the first of several cracks between private and public the film adeptly explores). The film expertly positions her as an influencer with real social-media cred, using the whip-fast tricks of the trade to convey her chops. She’s got a big audience full of devoted fans with their thumbs on the like button.
Being successful in any field, though, is, as Under the Influencer shows, the result of hard work. Tori’s youthful fandom is one earned by the help of her faithful assistant Sara (Chandler Young) and manager Christopher (Zach Paul Brown): Sara keeps Tori’s life together and Christopher cracks the whip, asking like clockwork “Have you Tweeted yet?” They keep Tori on her busy, nearly nonstop schedule of posts, tweets, vids, TikToks, ‘Grams and the constant monitoring they require. Being an influencer and constantly posting tips about relationships, self care, and personal growth allows precious little time, it’s apparent, for, say … relationships, self care, or personal growth.
Like in many a field, an influencer’s fame is fickle and fleeting. When her metrics reveal a downward trend in her popularity, Tori, Christopher, and Sara consider the channel’s next moves. A failed collaboration with the conniving competition (Ava Westcott) only makes things worse. As it turns out, Tori’s true passion is singing; in her mid-20s, starting to age out of the adolescent content she’s made herself famous with, is there room for a second act? Can she reinvent herself, both online and in her real life, as a fully realized person with not just a career but actual friends, passions, and … maybe … even … love?
In a way, there’s really nothing revelatory about the plot of Under the Influencer. It borrows story beats from dozens of fame-is-fleeting second-act narratives and is acutely aware of its own doing so, especially in scenes where Tori is visited by a Norma Desmond-like apparition of herself. But the film absolutely effuses charm and good will from its opening sequence through its emotional ending, with every step along the way (save perhaps for just one) a confident jaunt towards a surprising conclusion.
As the lead, Scorse is excellent in every scene, no matter what the script requires from her. She has to be her ebullient Tori-Time self in some scenes, a pragmatic businesswoman, therapy patient, aspiring artist, even an abject failure in others; never does Scorse not absolutely nail it. I feel like the role requires quite a bit of range, and Scorse’s actions and reactions seem perfectly on the mark at every moment. The taut script and excellent edit contribute to the film’s perfect sense of comic timing.
The rest of the cast, though their roles are much smaller in comparison, are very good as well, and Haughey’s script allows each of the minor characters a growth arc without their ever feeling forced. Even Tori’s venture into songcraft—something a lot of films would simply elide—is given a purposeful, lovely scene with Sara’s boyfriend assisting on acoustic guitar, showing that artistry is the result of meaningful human connection and collaboration. It’s a lesson Tori will eventually come to learn.
Like this scene, every aspect of this independent film is excellent. Haughey and his team convey the absurd perkiness of influencer culture without letting it overwhelm the film. The cinematography in the “real-life” scenes is consistently excellent: a bright, high-key, impressively detailed and beautifully shot mise-en-scene. Scenes begin, unfold, and conclude with an efficacy and purpose. The sound design—often so sadly overlooked in independent filmmaking—surprises at times, like when the sounds of Tori’s dreams subtly converge with the diegetic ambient sounds of a visit to her therapist’s home office. Every image, sound, word, cut, angle, note has its purpose.
Other filmmakers might have mined this terrain for cringe comedy (like the middling I Love My Dad, for instance), but there’s real depth to Under the Influencer. I confess to some real worry as the film reached its third act. What is intended as a surprise reveal about a new character (played by Spencer Vaughn Kelly) is telegraphed with all the subtlety of a 16-ton weight in a Monty Python skit. It doesn’t help that Kelly’s character is all speech-y and trope-y in a film that has seemed to work fine without relying too much on either up to this point. He seems to have walked straight out of a Hallmark Channel holiday special with no purpose other than to woo the heroine. Here I wondered: is what Tori really needs a man? A Hallmark-handsome hunk at that? Fortunately, it’s only a slight wobble, and the film recovers well enough to stick the landing. Viewers might be forgiven, though, if that third-act resolution doesn’t feel as genuine as the rest of the film.
Full of smart insights about the subject it’s there to examine—writer/director Haughey spent a year as a producer for a YouTuber with 14 million subscribers—Under the Influencer is a delightful surprise of a film, a coming-of-age story set in a social-media milieu filmmakers are only beginning to explore, made with such grace, good will, and filmmaking expertise it can’t help but charm even the most jaded of viewers. How lovely it is to see a movie made like this, a delightful dramedy with something to say, in a world so overrun with franchise fare, CGI fantasy, and dour drama. Go see Under the Influencer where and when you can, and you’ll find yourself swept along in its merriment.