Director Gia Coppola’s sophomore film Mainstream begins through the erratic smartphone camera lens of protagonist Frankie. Her finger briefly obscures a series of shots of L.A.: a flashing “SALE” sign, a colourful storefront display of wigs, and her own shadow.
When Frankie, an unfulfilled twenty-something bartender (played by Maya Hawke), happens to meet Link, an eccentric twenty-something drifter in a rat suit (played by Andrew Garfield), she records a video of him and uploads it. When the video garners more likes and comments than anything she has previously uploaded, she becomes determined to partner with him in a quest to become Internet famous.
According to Coppola, the film’s title was inspired by a conversation with a friend who worked with influencers. “They had such a massive following,” says Coppola, “but from what we consider the mainstream, no one really knew about them, and [my friend] had said, ‘They’re so mainstream, mainstream doesn’t even know it yet’, and that always stayed with me.” Ultimately, Coppola says, “the film was trying to understand how we find authenticity in the mainstream.”
As Frankie and Link rise to Internet stardom, authenticity is something they become increasingly devoid of. In one scene, Link pushes a guest on his YouTube show (played by Alexa Demie) to an emotional breakdown simply to amass likes. Contained within these scenes lies the film’s cautionary messaging about the dangers of social media. Coppola says the film is “trying to shed a light [on] what’s going on with mental health and what I was witnessing and experiencing…I felt like there was a lot of danger.” But Mainstream is simultaneously careful not to take an uncomplicated, decidedly anti–social media stance. “We as a culture still don’t know what’s going on with all of these moving parts,” says Coppola. “I feel like I’m not an authority on it…I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong way, because I think there’s pros and cons to it as there is with everything in life.”
At its core, the film is about Frankie, an artist struggling to find her voice. When it comes to Coppola’s own artistic voice, she says, “I don’t know if I feel like I’ve found my voice. I feel like I’m constantly searching, trying to understand, evolve, and keep growing.” Yet her sophomore film, like her critically acclaimed debut Palo Alto, does seem to secure the director’s voice as one capable of depicting both the buoyant lightheartedness and burdensome anxiety inherent in coming of age.
Where Palo Alto felt hazy and unhurried, Mainstream contains all the energy and vibrant immediacy of the Internet culture it depicts. Bubbly animations, explosions of emojis, and flower-crown filters all appear onscreen. Even stylistically, the film mirrors the fast-paced, often overstimulating world of social media. “You have to follow the tone of the project,” says Coppola, “so Mainstream, because it’s dealing with the Internet and social media, [a space that] feels very bombastic and overwhelming and sometimes annoying, I kind of lean into that.” Unlike Palo Alto, which, Coppola says, “was so much about aimlessness and being kind of dreamy.”
Andrew Garfield as “Link” and Maya Hawke as “Frankie” in Gia Coppola’s MAINSTREAM. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release
Through Mainstream, Coppola offers a vibrant film that thoughtfully critiques social media’s ability to negatively alter our values. “Fame, money, and power aren’t the things that really matter,” she says. “It’s about connection and the small things.” Mainstream’s success lies in its ability to be critical of social media without assuming an overly moralistic tone. For all its caution and critique, Mainstream is also just a really fun watch.