Two teenage girls need to find their way to a party on the night before they graduate high school, and they’ll need their smartphones to get there. Before Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), the heroines of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019), know the address of the party they plan to attend, Instagram stories have already shown them who’s there and what they’re doing. After getting dressed and crafting an alibi for Amy’s parents, they leave the house in a hurry. Then we see a series of images, cropped to phone-screen dimensions and in 4G-reminiscent resolution: boys holding their beers to the camera, dancing poolside, talking shit, spitting into a kitchen sink.
Sitting on the curb, their faces lit up by their phones, Amy narrates what she sees: ‘Tanner just ate a ghost pepper…Someone get him milk!’ Molly hangs up her phone, frustrated, and roars: ‘No one is answering!’ They’re stranded. Throughout the night, Molly and Amy’s phones are left in back seats and run out of battery; Amy connects her phone to a charger in a rideshare, and then accidentally plays the audio from the sexy video they’re watching on the car’s speaker system. Molly and Amy verbalise both what’s happening on and happening to their screens—their phones are not a portal to an alternate, digital world, but a supplement to, an augmentation of their physical reality. Booksmart strikes the canny balance of fantasy and authenticity that distinguishes so many of the best comedies about teenagers, and Molly and Amy’s use of technology feels true: there’s a fluidity and a simultaneity of the online and the in-person.
Booksmart succeeds where so much film and TV fails: smartphones on screen, particularly texting and the use of social media, so often feels like a problem that filmmakers are unable to solve. It can be deeply unstylish and disruptive: when a little blue speech bubble appears on screen to indicate a text sent or received, it brings with it a visual reminder of the artifice of our status as viewer, omniscient observer: why should we see this hologram of an iMessage that hovers next to a character’s head, when no person has ever experienced messaging that way?
Why should we see little blue speech bubbles next to a character’s head, when no person has ever experienced messaging that way?
Sometimes the use of social media in a narrative serves no function beyond laboured relatability: maybe it’s a romantic comedy, so we simply must mention Tinder—but because that’s a registered trademark, we have to design a fake app called ‘Kindling’ or ‘Lighter’. An overuse of internet lingo, or too many references to specific memes and trends, can make a film feel dated the moment it opens, so changeable is the internet’s vernacular. In the inverse, sometimes the reality of digital connectivity feels like a gaping hole in an otherwise authentic world. These technologies have a particular prevalence in the lives of young people, and many of the most resonant coming-of-age narratives of recent years take place pre-mobile phone: Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, and Lady Bird are all set in the recent past, and are unencumbered by technology that still feels too new to authentically depict. Representing our relationship to technology on-screen is undoubtedly a challenge, and it feels like only a handful of films and shows have tapped intuitively into the storytelling potential that these new ways we communicate can offer.
Where Booksmart is a rose-tinted ‘celebration’ of the freedom and joy that accompanies certain moments of teenhood, HBO’s Euphoria is almost entirely the opposite. A TV drama that follows a loose-knit group of teenagers in what looks like the suburbs outside Los Angeles, Euphoria begins with narrator Rue (Zendaya) sighing that she never consented to being born, and born three days after 9/11 no less. When we meet teenage Rue, she’s begun sampling her mother’s prescriptions, a dependence that becomes a debilitating addiction which she battles throughout the show’s first (and so far only) season. Euphoria is harrowing, sometimes to the point of heavy self-seriousness—it’s comparable with UK teen drama Skins, although Euphoria is much prettier, less interested in archetype and caricature, and lacks Skins’ interest in the embarrassing physical grossness of adolescence—but conceding that perhaps what she’s saying is all a little too sad, Rue reminds us: ‘I didn’t build this system, nor did I fuck it up.’
Euphoria pays attention to the true temporal nature of messaging, of the time it takes to mediate, through our phones, what it is we’d like to say.
In Euphoria, the isolating effects of shame and trauma are rendered in high-definition detail, and the characters’ phones can connect them to each other, but more often than not can make them feel all the more insular. Texting worked differently in Gossip Girl, a cornerstone for many of the previous generation’s teens: a character’s phone was the place where the private was constantly being made public, as two schools’ worth of students checked their messages in the same moment, all receiving the same news. In Euphoria, the phone is where the private festers. It’s where a conversation that started on Grindr but moved to iMessage is hidden under a fake name; it’s where videos taken without consent might have landed; it’s where a character drafts a message of love and then deletes it, changing it from ‘I love you’, to ‘I ♥ you’ to ‘♥ you’, to nothing. Often as a character types, their words appear on screen in real time, typos and all. Texts appear like subtitles at the bottom of the frame, a technique that feels somewhat divorced from the experience of using a device, of having your conversations move forward and morph in your hands. That said, when we see a character’s face change as they type something, Euphoria pays attention to the true temporal nature of messaging, of the time it takes to mediate, through our phones, what it is we’d like to say.
While I’m emphasising an attention to the true physical and temporal realities of texting and social media as a way of using these devices to tell stories, this isn’t to say that realism is the ultimate and only goal. Our phones can so easily leave us feeling deeply strange, and can connect us to the basest of human anxieties—and it’s thrilling when filmmakers lean into this unease. In Donald Glover’s exceptional FX series Atlanta, the real, the surreal, and the hyperreal are not mutually exclusive: there’s a sense of sometimes-comical foreboding in the corporate offices of music streaming platforms, in acoustic covers of viral rap records, and in the ways in which Earn (Glover), his cousin Al (Brian Tyree Henry) and their friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) navigate the complex landscape of celebrity and power.
In a bottle episode in which Earn’s sometimes-partner Van (Zazie Beetz) and her three friends spend New Year’s Eve at a mansion they’re told belongs to Drake, Atlanta strikes a perfect balance between the uncanny and the understated. Van wanders the property looking for an outlet to plug in her phone, which hasn’t charged properly since she dropped it in the bath. She encounters a man who says he’s Drake’s nutritionist’s cousin, and another who speaks only Spanish, and says he’s the star’s abuelo. As she tries to find the room where Drake appears to be taking pictures with fans, she starts to see cracks in the facade her feed has built. The party that’s taking place around her begins to feel eerily artificial, optimised for the purpose of being photographed and shared.
Our phones can so easily leave us feeling deeply strange, and can connect us to the basest of human anxieties—and it’s thrilling when filmmakers lean into this unease.
Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper is perhaps less interested in the ways in which our phones can make life feel surreal, and more in the threat that the unknown, the non-physical, can pose. Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a young woman working in Paris for a high-profile star, collecting and styling pieces from Chanel and Cartier, and dropping them at her boss’s house. Mourning her twin brother’s death from a heart condition she shares, Maureen hates her job, but remains in Paris to await a signal from her brother’s spirit. She is a medium, and isn’t sure exactly what kind of signal she is waiting for, or where it could be coming from. She researches spiritualism, and the YouTube video she watches on the Métro acknowledges that spiritualists have long been interested in what contemporary technology can offer them. After an encounter with a malevolent spirit that she’s sure isn’t her brother, Maureen begins to receive texts from an unknown contact, and this figure feels different: they know her whereabouts, her shames and desires. For the sake of preserving the acute tension and fear that Assayas builds using only text, the iPhone’s vibrate sound, and the Airplane Mode switch, I won’t describe the details of Maureen’s encounter, except to say that it may be the most effective use of a smartphone on screen to date.
Equally interested in the escalating heart rate of its viewer is the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems. Adam Sandler plays Howard, a New York jeweller whose gambling addiction propels his life forward at a constant sprint. The film, set in 2012, takes genuine delight in conjuring a setting which feels both familiar and cringingly dated: Instagram is new and hashtags are still acceptable; Howard’s girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) chides him for being ‘so extra’, and assures him that a new-on-the-scene musician named The Weeknd is ‘gonna be major, even though he’s from Canada’. Films set in the present run the risk of feeling dated by the technology their characters are using, but Howard’s iPhone 4, which we often see over his shoulder, is one of the minute details that so effectively anchors the film in the early 2010s: his green texts appear on a slate-grey background, the individual messages have the 3D bubbles and slick liquid shine of early iOS. Beyond its status as helpful anachronism, Howard’s phone is a handheld plot device: it enables his wilful impulsiveness, which steers the Safdies’ script through an impossibly exacting kind of chaos. The reckless decisions that Howard makes at every turn feel, to a viewer, like minor explosions, and more often than not his iPhone is the detonator.
It’s undeniably a challenge and an obstacle for filmmakers, to acknowledge how much of contemporary existence the smartphone touches. A film which clumsily portrays its characters’ interactions with their phones is equally as frustrating as one which is lumbered by a Statement on Contemporary Life and Connectivity. Not every film can or should take the use of personal tech as a central tenet. To say that a film should integrate technology into its reality seamlessly or gracefully would be misguided too—sometimes the experience of the digital is jarring, or dark. Screen storytelling that’s interested in the use of personal technology needs to strive to acknowledge how a character’s relationship to their phone is personal, context-dependent, and dynamic—it may help a character feel all the more alive.