Influencer horror is the fastest-growing subgenre in film — from the influencer phony of Sissy to the influencer victims of the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the influencer killer of Spree. But as its name suggests, the new film Influencer, directed by Kurtis David Harder and now playing at FilmQuest, may claim the title as the best of the field. It stars Emily Tennant as a social media star who isn’t as happy as she seems, but Cassandra Naud stands out even more in what should be a star-making role as a woman who doesn’t like the camera.
The film was shot over 40 days in Thailand, with a strikingly small cast and crew of about a dozen people. Harder, who has directed three previous films, said in a Q&A following the film’s rapturous reception Tuesday that he first spotted the film’s central location — an architecturally immaculate home that juts out like a majestic catamaran — on Airbnb a few years ago, and kept it in mind as he and c0-writer Tesh Guttikonda honed the script.
And what a script. The film was originally set to shoot in 2020, but when COVID-19 delayed travel to Thailand, the writers took an extra year to make everything fit together flawlessly. Hitchcockian may be an overused term, but it applies to Influencer, which borrows some of the Psycho director’s best tricks: mistaken identity, characters you aren’t sure whether to hate or begrudgingly admire, outstanding reversals. I can’t think of the last movie I’ve seen with so many smart, unexpected twists.
Tennant lures us in as Madison, a somewhat insufferable social media star who probably uses #gratitude at the end of every filtered post as she traipses through Thailand at other people’s expense. She soon meets CW, played by Naud, who seems content to be Madison’s sidekick as she shows her around Thailand’s most beautiful and secret spots — including an island with no cell reception. One of the least likable characters, at least initially, is Ryan, Madison’s boyfriend, who actor Rory J. Saper cooly inhabits without asking for our approval. Sara Canning, probably the best known of the cast for her work on The Vampire Diaries, squares the quartet of leads, and brings a jaded sensibility to the whole affair.
But Naud, again, is especially good. Harder and Guttikonda set up CW as an audience surrogate, the person who might finally inject a dose of humility and common sense into Madison’s grandiose performative-humility. But as we spend more time with the characters, our loyalties shift, and shift again.
Notice I don’t say we “get to know” the characters. All of them remain a bit deliberately opaque, giving us the delight of sorting out their motivations and desires long after we leave the theater. The film will be released next year, and you’d be lucky to see it in a venue like The Velour, home theater of the genre-focused FilmQuest. The festival, one of MovieMaker‘s 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, is based in Provo, Utah, a town that manages to feel both wholesome and subversive — a feeling perfectly encapsulated by both FilmQuest and the Velour. The curtains outside the theater’s entrance both conceal from the street and beckon you into a dark and cozy space that feels like a crowded magic shop. Which is exactly what a theater should be, especially when it’s as full of great tricks as Influencer.
Influencer, directed by Kurtis David Harder, is now playing festivals and is scheduled for release in 2023.