Under The Influencer

Under The Influencer (2023)

Time is catching up with Tori. Ten years ago, at age 15 (and played by Michelle Torian), she started giving makeup tips online from her bedroom. Now at 25 (and played by Taylor Joree Scorse), she has enjoyed enormous success as an influencer on her YouTube channel Tori Time, but recently her viewer numbers have been heading downwards. For Tori is still trying to appeal to the same teen audience, even as Internet culture has shifted, a new generation of rivals – like Becca (Ava Westcott) or Tori’s ex Ryan (Andrew Rogers) – is more business savvy, and she herself, though hardly old, has outgrown her target demographic. This moment represents both a crossroads and a crisis for Tori, who has lost all sense of who she really is beneath her public image, even as her age, her health and her very sanity are on the line. Writer/director Alex Haughey’s Under the Influencer traces her rocky road to reinvention.  

Tori’s producer Christopher (Zach Paul Brown) insists she keep chasing the trends that she once herself set, while her assistant Sara (Chandler Young) would prefer her to branch out with the singing that is Tori’s true – if relatively new – passion. Meanwhile Tori’s doctor (Jonathan Stoddard) advises that her family history of cancer may be catching up with her, her psychiatrist (Martin Thompson) warns that she risks drowning in her need for online validation, and her psychic (Samiya Khan) reads death – or is it transformation? – in her tarot cards. All these people reveal Tori as a character under examination and analysis, struggling to find herself – and that is before we get to the chorus of critics and their endless below-the-line commentary on her posts, deconstructing in excruciatingly intrusive detail every facet of her appearance, personality and performance.

Yet even as Tori tries – literally – to lay down new roots, cultivating in her garden a seedling notoriously difficult to bring to bloom, the divide between her fragile real-life identity and her “loud and obnoxious” online persona is figured in her regular conversations with an altera ego (also Scorse) who appears in any reflective surface, whether the glass of a makeup mirror or the screen of a smartphone. Like the doppelganger in Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam (2018), this more confident, more glamorous version of Tori is both her idealised self and her worst enemy, elevating and undermining the conflicted woman while enabling her narcissistic – yet self-destructive – addiction to hits and comments. 

In the third act of Under The Influencer, at the moment where an isolated, anguished Tori is contemplating her own failure, she runs into the handsome stranger Sayer (Spencer Vaughn Kelly). This veteran soldier, travelling America on a prosthetic leg that he has acquired after heroically trying to rescue a comrade under fire in Afghanistan, spends his last afternoon in Los Angeles teaching Tori lessons in the persistence, patience, and the importance of following your own path right to the end. 

There is something about Sayer’s fortuitous arrival on the scene, not to mention his homespun parables and Hallmark aphorisms, that makes him seem more deus ex machina or romantic fantasy than real person – but perhaps he is just another construct of Tori’s imagination, a more positive counterpart to her mirror-image doppelganger, converting her inner turmoil to dialectic, and allowing her to talk herself into a new direction for her life where previously she had just spiralled and become boxed in. Certainly by the end this arrested young woman is back in motion, and changing course, in pursuit not of other people’s trends but of a more authentic voice and self. 

Under The Influencer simultaneously satirises the shallow artifice of our online existence, and charts the difficulties of leaving it behind and reentering the real world. By gradually embracing her flaws, her age, even her mortality, Tori is able to grow as a person and to stride, or at least to limp, into a different future. As Tori jettisons her craving for endless affirmation and so liberates herself, we are witnessing both a belated coming of age, and the early bloom of an artist.

strap: In Alex Haughey’s satirical psychodrama, a conflicted YouTuber’s quest for art and authenticity leads to a belated blossoming.

© Anton Bitel