Hollywood’s depictions of the ways in which we live on social media have tended to rely on the downsides: misinformation, bullying, doom-scrolling, and self-hate. In the decade since David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning The Social Network, thrillers and horror movies have leaned into the fact that on the Internet, anybody can lie about who they are. Gia Coppola’s Mainstream, which will be released by IFC Films on May 7, continues this tradition with pitch-black comedy: “You want to make art, or you want to chase affirmation from faceless strangers?” sneers Andrew Garfield’s Link.
But social media has also inspired filmmakers toward inventive forms, like “screen movies” whose narrative unfolds almost entirely through computer screens. The subgenre also offers insights into influencer-inspired jealousy, the impossible difficulty of middle school, and the competitive nature of life as a streaming endeavor. These are GQ’s picks for the 11 best social media movies (plus one TV episode!)—and yes, you can watch them all online.
12. Noah, by Patrick Cederberg and Walter Woodman (2013). “It just makes people so crazy,” says Lilly (Nina Iordanova), a young woman befuddled by the popularity of Facebook, near the end of this 18-minute short film. Case in point: Noah (Sam Kantor), who uses Facebook to cross a line in his romantic relationship. Noah plays out entirely on his computer screen as he multitasks his way through his anxieties. He keeps Pornhub and an online game open; he cues up a sad Paul McCartney song; he complains to his friends about his girlfriend Amy (Caitlin McConkie-Pirie). And, in a massive breach of privacy, Noah starts poring over Amy’s Facebook account, looking for likes, messages, and comments from male names he doesn’t recognize. First-time filmmakers Cederberg and Woodman capture the fickleness, spontaneity, and sensitivity at the heart of our everyday online browsing. (Vimeo)
11. Unfriended, by Leo Gabriadze (2004). As one of the first horror films about cyber bullying, this low-budget, “one-take” hit probed the lack of control we have over how others portray us on the Internet, imagining a haunting as a literal virus. The threats we’ve come to accept as part of being online—unflattering videos and pictures, insistent directives to commit suicide, etc.—are given an appropriately sinister treatment. Like the horror classic Ringu/The Ring, Unfriended wonders at the destructive power one piece of information can hold when spread by many. “What you have done here will live forever,” the malevolent entity warns, and that sounds like your worst Tweet come to life. (Netflix)
10. Brittany Runs a Marathon, by Paul Downs Colaizzo (2019). This is about as feel-good as movies about social media get. Brittany (Jillian Bell) has internalized a fair amount of self-hatred about her stalled career, her weight, and her longtime lack of romantic partnership. Part of the problem is her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee), a teacher and aspiring influencer who mines her whole life for social media content, with whom Brittany is constantly comparing herself. What if Brittany were to escape from Gretchen’s orbit, put down her cellphone, and build her own identity? Brittany Runs a Marathon makes clear that social media isn’t inherently evil—it connects Brittany with new friends, helps her set a routine, and ultimately builds her confidence—and it escapes triteness thanks to Bell’s simultaneously self-deprecating and empathetic turn. (Amazon Prime)
9. Me and You and Everyone We Know, by Miranda July (2005). July’s first full-length feature was an early indicator of the quirky strangeness and emotional vulnerability that would define her aesthetic. Brothers Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), 6, and Peter (Miles Thompson), 14, use a messaging account that is somewhat supervised by their single dad, Richard (John Hawkes), to chat with strangers—including a woman to whom young Robby sends the emoticon message, ))<>((, which he describes as “pooping back and forth, forever.” Is this strange? Sure! It’s also a childish, but genuine, desire for companionship that captures the potential, both beneficial and harmful, of relationships built over the Internet. (IFC Films Unlimited)
8. Mainstream, by Gia Coppola (2021). Mainstream asks whether the pretenses of social media would be acceptable outside of our screens. The film follows Frankie (Maya Hawke), a young woman making what her mother calls “weird videos” for YouTube. Her subscriber count balloons when she captures the roguishly charming Link (Garfield) yelling about the evils of technology inside a bougie mall, and enlists him to create a satirical YouTube personality. Coppola and co-writer Tim Stuart’s script is blunt and bombastic, but the immense glee Garfield gets from chewing up the screen like he’s starring in a Harmony Korine biopic is infectious. (Available for digital rental or purchase.)
7. The Hater, by Jan Komasa (2020). So many movies about social media focus on its “victims,” but Komasa shakes things up with this tale of an instigator. Tomasz Giezma is a law student who is expelled for plagiarism and rejected by his crush’s family, but that downward spiral doesn’t depress him; instead, it emboldens him to use social media as a tool for manipulation. He tells lie after lie after lie, and every mistruth gains him a wider audience on Facebook and further clout in the social media industry. The Hater sometimes gets a bit too in the ethical weeds, but it’s also a tightly plotted film about how social media’s mob mentality can manifest in real violence. Post-Jan. 6, 2021, The Hater has a new kind of unsettling relevance. (Netflix)
6. Nerve, by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (2016). This film examines the competitive nature of social media via a sort of online truth-or-dare game in which “watchers” set dares for “players,” who compete for online fame and cash prizes. Vee (Emma Roberts) and Ian (Dave Franco) are dared to kiss, get tattoos, and go on a wild motorcycle ride. As the dares get more over the top, Nerve reveals a third category of participants: “prisoners,” players who balked and are targeted by hackers in retribution. Nerve is often a fast-paced thriller, but what it does particularly well is depict the decentralized nature of the Internet, and how quickly power, control, and responsibility can shift from one person to another. (Available for digital rental or purchase.)
5. Searching, by Aneesh Chaganty (2018). John Cho has a face you can trust, and Chaganty takes advantage of his openness in the claustrophobic Searching, which, like Noah, takes place entirely on computer screens and smartphones. David Kim’s 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) has suddenly disappeared, and as he cycles through her Tumblr, Venmo, and message history in search of clues, he keeps finding out more things he didn’t know about her life. Searching takes on the rhythm of a choose-your-own-adventure book, effectively balancing new information with Cho’s frantic, beleaguered, and hopeful performance. This box-office success ushered the whodunnit into the social media age. (Available for digital rental and purchase.)
4. Black Mirror, “Nosedive.” One of the best Black Mirror episodes imagines a world in which every interaction is rated. Ratings define status, meaning that people who are scored highly by others move up the ladder of success—and those who are rated poorly, or penalized for whatever reason, suffer. Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Lacie, a woman who wants to boost her 4.2 rating to 4.5 so she can do more with her life, and an invitation to her childhood friend Naomi’s (Alice Eve) wedding could be just what she needs. But after a series of innocuous actions cause her rating to drop, Lacie sees her social status careen downward, too, and Howard’s cheery performance cracks bit by bit until she’s in full-on desperation mode. “Nosedive” serves as a simple but moving commentary on the narrow boxes our constant desire for self-betterment can force us into. (Netflix)
3. The Social Network, by David Fincher (2010). The Social Network pinpoints the greed and betrayal at the center of Facebook’s creation. Zuckerberg, played with perfect twitchiness and deadpan braggadocio by Jesse Eisenberg, is an intensely narcissistic monster, while the supporting cast (Andrew Garfield, Brenda Song, and Rooney Mara) are exquisitely tuned in. David Fincher’s clinical, claustrophobic direction pairs well with Aaron Sorkin’s intensely rhythmic script, and the result was a film that clearly sketched the feuding forces of competition, melancholy, and pettiness surrounding Zuckerberg. Does it now seem too sympathetic toward him, after world domination, the rapid spread of conspiracy theories, and the rise of white supremacy? Quite possibly. But The Social Network is an intoxicating array of contrasts—icy atmosphere versus manic energy—that seem emblematic of our increasingly complicated relationship with social media, too. (Netflix)
2. Eighth Grade, by Bo Burnham (2018). Middle school has always been a nightmare, but with social media added to the mix? Yikes. Former YouTuber Burnham revisits the absolute hell of early adolescence in this portrait of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an eighth grader one week away from graduating middle school. Kayla doesn’t have many friends, instead spending most of her time online posting selfies or sharing YouTube videos of advice about being popular, cool, and well-liked—things she might not actually be. There is a “fake it ‘til you make it” quality to Kayla’s social media presence that Fisher, with her stammering delivery, absolutely nails. Each scene cycles between totally squirm-worthy and absolutely relatable, with Burnham’s script making clear how the performative nature of social media often forces us to grow up too fast. By the time Kayla and her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) have a heart to heart about their relationship, you’ll probably need a box of tissues, and you might also pause the movie to delete Instagram from your phone. (Showtime)
1. Ingrid Goes West, by Matt Spicer (2017). Aubrey Plaza is a dynamo as a young, mentally disturbed woman who becomes fixated with influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) and her seemingly perfect life. Ingrid moves to California and reshapes herself in Taylor’s image, using her social media posts to track her interests, show up at her favorite locations, mimic her style, and eventually befriend her. Are Ingrid’s intentions harmful? Ingrid Goes West isn’t immediately clear about that. Spicer is more interested in exploring how we put forth carefully curated versions of ourselves on social media and allow our self-worth to be either punctured or buoyed by every like and comment. The range of emotions that play over Plaza’s face in the final seconds are the cherry on top of the most layered, exquisitely detailed performance of her career. (Hulu.)