March 26, 2023

‘Sweat’ Gives Influencers Something They’ve Never Had: Depth

Watching the opening scene of Sweat while sitting on a couch feels as contrarian as chomping down a bag of Doritos while motionless on a Peloton. Using a handheld camera, director Magnus von Horn trails his peppy fitness-influencer protagonist Sylwia Zajac (Magdalena Kolesnik) as she revs up an adoring crowd during a public cardio demonstration at a mall in Poland. Her thick blonde ponytail bobs rhythmically as she weaves between fans, shouting high-octane words of encouragement like a particularly toned mega-church leader. Hers is a prosperity gospel for the body, and she’s a persuasive preacher. I almost got up to follow along.

If you’ve spent any time in fitness-focused corners of the internet, Sylwia will be a familiar figure. In von Horn’s new film, which hits select theaters Friday and streaming platform Mubi next month, she posts at-home workouts for her 600,000 followers in a series of candy-colored elastane outfits; she eats premade grain bowls with balanced macronutrients; she’ll promote said grain bowls on her social media accounts, provided their makers have demonstrated a commitment to sustainable packaging. She is thin and beautiful, the sort of person who always looks lit by a ring light, but she’s canny enough to let her shiny facade drop occasionally to reveal some humanizing vulnerabilities. (She really wants a boyfriend.) Her advertisers don’t love these orchestrated glimpses of fragility, but that doesn’t matter—the fans do.

Influencers are often portrayed in books, movies, and media as evidence of a creeping and pervasive cultural vapidity. Dependency on followers for validation and attention becomes shorthand for societal rot. Gia Coppola’s recent film Mainstream attempts to critique online celebrity in a yarn about a filmmaker who helps a charismatic grifter become a viral prankster. It doesn’t work, though; the storyline may as well have been written by a bot exclusively fed alarmist op-eds about the depravity of Logan Paul. (Plot synopsis: “INTERNET FAME BAD.”) Not that influencer culture send-ups need to be nuanced. Leigh Stein’s recent novel Self Care provides a delightful dissection of the #girlboss, and Beth Morgan’s forthcoming novel A Touch of Jen is a ruthless comedy-horror about the perils of obsessing over Instagram. The first great influencer satire was 2017’s Ingrid Goes West, a pitiless, funny two-hander pairing desperate fangirl Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) with a boho-chic lifestyle maven played by Elizabeth Olsen. These characters are broad archetypes—the basket case and the princess—but the movie isn’t going for psychological realism. It’s a skewering of a certain Southern California Millennial scene.

Sweat doesn’t try to fit into this new collection of influencer satire, to its benefit. Instead, it offers something newer: a refreshingly layered character study of the sort of person often reduced to a punchline. It’s not interested in judging Sylwia so much as probing the shallow contours of her world to allow the profound loneliness to surface.

After her kinetic opening performance, the audience sees Sylwia’s energy levels drop, but this isn’t a case of the two-faced entertainer who sulks behind the scenes. Instead, it’s a portrait of someone who derives her identity from the feedback loop between herself and her devotees; her enthusiasm is genuine, just finite. With a different actress, Sylwia might’ve turned into someone more ripe for mocking, but Kolesnik molds her into a raw nerve, so well-intentioned that her narcissism is a forgivable flaw. She narrates her days into her phone screen as she runs errands in her car and hangs out in her tidy modern apartment, appearing most at ease while addressing her unseen audience.

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