Many a film has examined the unfortunate price of success and fame. How many likes and followers we accrue has become some kind of sick metric with which people are judged. In a society that values popularity and clickbait over proof and facts, being cutthroat certainly seems more appealing than trying things the old fashioned way. In writer/director Roxine Helberg’s riveting thriller Cold Copy, one post-grad journalism student will do whatever it takes to get to the top—no matter who she has to hurt along the way. Bel Powley, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Jacob Tremblay lead an explosive feature that channels similar energy to Teaching Mrs. Tingle and The Devil Wears Prada.
Mia (Powley) has become full-blown obsessed with her idol, big-time reporter and host of The Night Report, Diane Heger (Ross). She comes so overprepared to an interview to even get her foot in the door of Heger’s classroom that she ends up roasted by the end of their exchange. Heger thinks Mia is simply regurgitating what she wants to hear rather than having original thoughts of her own. Nevertheless, Mia still makes the exclusive list of twenty people. Offering up a rare chance to have their work showcased in a segment on The Night Report, Heger offers any journalism student the chance of a lifetime.
Heger’s assignment comes with strict guidelines. No easy cut-and-dry topics allowed. Offer insight and dig deep. Do whatever it takes to get the truth. Everywhere Mia wants to start seems to lead her to dead ends. Dementia, construction workers putting themselves in danger, and even senatorial corruption come up empty, and don’t seem to be Heger-approved. As Mia struggles to find a direction, her roommate and fellow Heger student (Nesta Cooper) easily earns Heger’s favor. Tracee Ellis Ross crushes the role of Diane Heger, giving Miranda Priestly good company in the despicable way she treats people underneath her. None seem to welcome her wrath more than Mia, who tirelessly tries to outsmart and impress this difficult woman.
The answer may come in the most unlikely of places. Out on a date with a douchey guy who tries to make a move on her, Mia refuses his advances to no avail. A frail and lanky teen (Tremblay) steps in to her aid as he happens to be walking by in the park late at night. The kid’s presence spooks the asshole off, even though he is obviously much smaller in stature. Introducing himself as Igor, he invites Mia into his shockingly massive home, complete with a beautiful glass door. Igor seems to be an ambitious young artist with a burgeoning Instagram account and absentee parents. Igor’s mom recently died of an accidental overdose—to Mia’s surprise, she realizes she has accidentally befriended the son of a famous author.
The family refused to speak to the press, so their views on their matriarch are a complete question mark. Mia uses the guise of a character piece to help more people view Igor’s artwork as an in. Though a minor “only on paper,” sixteen-year-old Igor acts weirdly mature for his age. This includes but is not limited to: constantly drinking wine, taking Mia to an abandoned sugar factory where he slashes bags and throws them into fans, carrying the swagger of someone much older, and partying deep into the night. Mia begins forming a narrative out of the handheld footage she is filming. Could Igor’s family be hiding a deeper secret? Mia can feel a story here, and Heger pushes her hard to deliver one worthy of The Night Report.
Mia slides further down the sleazy journalist rabbit hole. Things never get as dark as, say, 2014’s Nightcrawler, but Cold Copy exposes a selfish journalist at her most ambitious in Powley’s Mia. Both Powley and Ross are exceptionally good. These are two characters that may be more alike than we first glimpse; both women are devoted to uncovering “truth” regardless of how harmful it may be. Assured line delivery makes quotable dialogue instantly memorable. Ross’s screen presence and evil smirk intimidatingly loom large over the production. Tremblay also shines as the complex Igor, a role unlike any he has dabbled in previously.
Cold Copy is careful to close with an ending more satisfying than most of the films I have seen on the big screen this year. Driving home messaging about the nasty side of ambition, Roxine Helberg’s stunning directorial debut will prove to be a defining work for her rising new voice. As a former journalism major myself, I found Mia’s obvious lack of ethics to be appalling. Then again, the script essentially implores her to do horrible things to good people in order to get ahead. If it meant crushing everything in your wake to get on air for your favorite news program, where would you draw the line? Existential questions have complicated answers, and Cold Copy both condemns and celebrates the art of journalism through insightful intent.
Cold Copy screened at 2023’s Tribeca Film Festival.