Auteur writer/director Gia Coppola’s previous film, 2013’s Palo Alto, weaved together separate stories that formed a concise and beautiful whole. Mainstream is a different beast entirely. Far more experimental and wildly outrageous than Coppola’s previous effort, Mainstream mixes so many different genres into a jumble of insanity that clicked for me on every possible level. All three of the film’s leads are terrific, with Andrew Garfield’s unhinged energy spilling out from every frame. I’ve been a fan of Garfield for a long time now (especially since 2009’s The Social Network), and his work here is nothing like I’ve ever seen before. Garfield’s charisma bleeds into Link’s utter lunacy, making for one supremely entertaining lead performance.
Frankie (Maya Hawke) works at a bar with Jake (Nat Wolff) and is hated by their boss. Frankie meets a weird man named Link (Andrew Garfield) at a local mall, and the two of them have an instant connection. Frankie makes a strange performance art piece where Link screams for onlookers to “eat the art,” and the clip quickly goes viral on YouTube. When she runs into Link again, she sees opportunity to craft something bigger. After they share a first kiss, Link asks her if she’s okay with peanuts, and it’s fireworks from there! With Jake’s help, they form a writer’s room to launch a quirky and weird game show that catapults Link into superstardom. Becoming a famous YouTuber by the moniker No One Special seems like it’ll be a piece of cake, but Link’s constant need to go off-script threatens to destroy everything they’ve built. What started as a simple attempt to build a character from scratch whose lifestyle is “doing and saying nothing” turns dark and mystifying. Link’s maniacal personality and lack of compassion devour everything wholesome in his path.
Maya Hawke has great chemistry with Garfield, playing a complete opposite to his wild persona. She imbues a sense of caring and understanding in Frankie. Her life after meeting Link is changed inexorably. She’s constantly making excuses or trying to justify Link’s actions, even as they become crazier and meaner. He refuses to share information about his past even from their early encounters, claiming his parents both “died from measles in the Civil War.” Nat Wolff’s Jake attempts to be the voice of reason in reigning back Link’s more outlandish tendencies. While Jake isn’t as big of a role as either Frankie or Link, Wolff does a decent job of expanding his character amidst limited material. He makes every second on screen count.
Finally, we come to the character of Link. Andrew Garfield’s wardrobe alone deserves its own award. Every piece of clothing he wears tells its own twisted story. From rat to cockroach to madcap maniac, Link’s costumes evolve as his fame peaks higher and higher. He disguises himself with loopy glasses behind an extended newspaper after he makes a scene at Frankie’s job. Link stumbling around with a big, prosthetic penis is also eye-catching and shocking. While it’s impossible to sympathize with the mysterious character of Link, Mainstream does a great job with focusing on the love story when it counts the most. It serves to balance out the crazier sections of the narrative, and shows that there’s more to Link than his dastardly behavior.
Mainstream has a lot on its mind. Coppola and writing partner Tom Stuart make fascinating commentary on cyber bullying, cancel culture, suicide, social media, and technology, while sustaining an engaging ensemble of distinct personalities. The ‘going viral’ angle reminded me strongly of 2020’s modern horror masterpiece, Spree. Joe Keery’s psychotic performance in that film sits fondly right next to Garfield’s performance in this. Light romance, strong acting, and the deep darkness of Link’s overbearing persona all aid in making Mainstream one uncomfortable dive into viral video madness. Andrew Garfield has given one of the signature performances of 2021. However you take the messages of Mainstream, one thing is for sure: you’ll never forget them. “It’s so important to be yourself. But only your best parts. Only your pretty parts. Not that weak shit.” #EatTheArt
Mainstream beams to limited theaters, VOD, and digital on Friday, May 7th.