Superhost (2021)

Teddy (Osric Chau) and Claire (Sara Canning) are co-presenters on their travel vlog Superhost, compiling and uploading to-camera pieces about the high-end holiday rentals where they stay. They are also a genuine couple – and right from the opening scene of writer/director Brandon Christensen‘s Superhost, there is a clear tension between their real relationship and the one that they stage for their logged-in audience. On camera they are always enthusiastic, excitable and super-positive, with their every flamboyant gesture accompanied by animated icons and cheeky captions. Yet once cut is called, the fluffy artifice evaporates, Claire’s apparent perma-smile vanishes as she goes back to worrying about their dropping numbers and cash-flow problems. Meanwhile Teddy, whose chirpy optimism is entirely sincere, seems unsure of the precise boundary where the show ends and reality begins, and is secretly planning to propose to Claire on camera in the middle of their next trip. Teddy and Claire are living their life online as postmodern performance, mixing truth and fakery to maximise their digital reach, validation and profit. They have even been known to fabricate material outright for the clickbait, along the way ruining the businesses of folk like ‘the bitch from Draper’ Vera (Barbara Crampton). Teddy however has always been uncomfortable with this kind of approach, and just wants to spend all his real (and virtual) time with Claire.

So Teddy and Claire come to the isolated Sugar House at something of a crossroads, unsure where their income is coming from or where their relationship is going. They are hoping that their stay in this extremely well-reviewed, ‘life-changing’ modern home will also represent a reversal of their dwindling fortune – and the house really is beautiful, although from the start, something is off. The pass code that they have been given for the front door is wrong. The ubiquitous host whom they know only as ‘BettyLou52’ turns out to be Rebecca (Gracie Gillam), a manically chirpy young woman whose tired-and-wired schtick is unsettling. There are CCTV cameras everywhere, inside and outside. Something is clogging one of the toilets. And there is an entire room dedicated to cat toys and furniture, but no trace of an actual cat. Of course Teddy and Claire are distracted by other things: not only is the internet service so bad out in this remote woodland that they have trouble uploading any of their new video content, but their account has been mysteriously suspended. Indeed they have a malicious stalker who is doing everything to sabotage their vlog. Gradually, though, as Rebecca’s alarmingly unhinged behaviour comes to the fore, Claire sniffs opportunity. “This chick is gold!”, she tells Teddy, preferring to capture even more of the initially camera-shy Rebecca for their show than to leave well alone and to get away fast.

Where Christensen’s first two features Still/Born (2017) and Z (2019) were intense, supernaturally framed psychodramas of maternity and madness, Superhost is altogether less serious in tone, as it satirises that strange yet attractive interzone where we all at times vacation, located somewhere between real life and virtual masquerade. The film, like the couple at its centre, may end up going to a very dark place, but there is something deeply comical about seeing these characters live out their digital update of Aesop’s fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf. For here a flawed but likeable couple falls victim not only to the “complete lunatic” whose “craziest shit” is what at least one of them longs cynically to exploit, but also to their own reputation for hit-hungry hyperbole if not outright mendacity. Meanwhile, even if the accommodation is not quite as advertised on the website, the view is undeniably breathtaking.

strap: Brandon Christensen’s psycho-satire has a couple of vloggers vacationing somewhere between real life and virtual masquerade

© Anton Bitel