Review: KING KELLY Will Do Anything For Your Attention

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Kelly (Louisa Krause) is a terrible human being. Completely obsessed with herself and with how she is perceived by everyone else, she truly believes she is destined for celebrity and stardom...the minute her new boyfriend gets her website up and running! 

Despite living with her parents and doting on her diminutive pooch, Kelly spends her entire life living vicariously through her live video blog. She engages with her (supposed) online audience far more than with the real people around her. Except maybe Jordan (Libby Woodbridge), her best friend, who will do whatever Kelly wants because she loves her oh so much. Kelly believes she is generous, warm-hearted and giving to a fault, but in truth she is vile, manipulative and superficial to her very core.

While there is an unmistakable irony at play when an online critic, who uses Twitter incessantly and writes for an audience he connects with solely via the Internet, reviews a film like King Kelly, you can't help but feel that this is precisely the point. After all, didn't I just sit through Kelly's webcam strip show? Didn't I follow every step of her 4th of July odyssey to reclaim a bag of drugs stashed in her ex-boyfriend's car, from the voyeuristic perspective of her iPhone? That's what Kelly wanted me to do, and that's what I just did.

There will likely be two polarising reactions to King Kelly, Andrew Neel's satire on the introverted, self-aggrandising world of perpetual blogging and Internet idolatry. Either the film is a spot-on, darkly satirical depiction of a live-streamed culture, forever plugged in, connected and shared, regardless of quality or intellectual worth; or it is a self-indulgent, rambling mess that inadvertently succumbs to precisely what it set out to demonise. While it would be relatively easy to argue either side of this debate, the honest truth is that King Kelly succeeds (and therefore fails) at being both, by falling somewhere in the middle.

Subtlety does not factor into King Kelly, and Louisa Krause's larger-than-life central performance proves as much of an obstacle as it is an asset. Krause certainly seems more at home playing a narcissistic sociopath than a regular high school girl goofing around with her cellphone. If at times she seems a little fake, that's because Kelly is always giving a performance. She's either pouting into her iPhone or manipulating her friends and relatives every moment she's on camera, and after a few wavering moments early on, Krause's performance is frighteningly on-point.  

It's unlikely that viewers will fall for Kelly the way everyone in the film does, but there is no denying that we are drawn to her self-destructive existence even as she infuriates us. As a culture, we have become obsessed with witnessing the failure of others, with recording moments, not of glory, success or even magic, but of embarrassment, humiliation and personal injury, and then judging each other by those criteria, instead of by our strengths. 

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The film follows Kelly during an increasingly deranged and drug-addled 24 hours as she tears around New York State trying to retrieve a bag of drugs she was supposed to deliver to a local dealer. Kelly and Jordan film their every move on their iPhones, a video blogging obsession that has become an emotional crutch for our unhinged heroine. As the night goes on, Kelly only gets increasingly deluded, manipulative and repellent, which may make the film increasingly difficult to watch for some viewers.

Shot entirely on iPhones, predominantly by its two lead actresses in-character, King Kelly forces us to see things the way Kelly does - which is a challenge as she is so unflinchingly dreadful as a human being. Kelly has constructed a world around herself, where she is the only thing of any importance. Men are depicted as weak, led only by their unquenchable libido, while Kelly is a manipulative sociopath, who uses her body to get what she wants. 

We look to Kelly's best friend, Jordan, for reassurance that our heroine is the exception to the rule, only to see a pathetic lapdog, whose insecurities keep her from questioning anything Kelly does, even when she threatens to damage Jordan's health, relationship or sanity. The film shoots for a level of post-modern self-reflexivity that makes it almost impossible to criticise. Kelly "is" the Media, the Monster, the Machine. Resistance to Kelly is futile, and any criticism of the film can be instantly absorbed into the beast itself and projected as intentional.

In truth, King Kelly is blunt rather than incisive, pouncing upon a single observation about modern tech-infused culture and running with it until it collapses in a pool of its own piss and vomit. But, perhaps subconsciously, the film also touches on a number of problems facing filmmaking and movie-going today. 

Film has become an art form that literally anybody can adopt, broadcast and criticise. Everybody is a filmmaker now, everybody is a movie star and the line where reality ends and the movie begins has never been more confused, indistinct or perhaps even irrelevant. We willingly broadcast every minute of our own lives, hoping to give insight, or entertainment, to other people - many of whom we don't even know. The desire for attention, recognition, and fame has never been stronger, yet simultaneously, the talent pool has never been more diluted. King Kelly, both the film and the protagonist's online persona, knows this only too well, and will do whatever it takes to make sure we continue looking in her direction.

King Kelly opens in New York on 30 November and is available digitally from 4 December.
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