By the end of Alex Lee Moyer’s directorial debut, TFW NO GF, one of the film’s internet troll, incel subjects waxes philosophical to the filmmaker – proclaiming, “We’re all gonna be alright”. This moment is set to a chipper piece of the score accompanied by surreal animation of internet meme “Wojack” looking off into the sunset, tears rolling down his face with a smile. Maybe these guys aren’t so bad after all, the documentary seemingly wants us to think. Perhaps they simply need some love and acceptance. This idea is questionable at best given the sheer volume of vile things that have been said and done by these men, but at worst, it is downright irresponsible.
Films are our greatest art form because they allow us to empathize with people we don’t know in situations that oftentimes are best viewed from afar. Documentaries take this a step further by shedding light on real people in real situations. What is uniquely fascinating about this in the context of TFW NO GF is we have all seen and interacted with people like the four men depicted on screen. We see their lives and the trials and tribulations that have driven them to become internet trolls and incels – but it’s nothing particularly insightful or interesting? What good is a character study of someone we all know far enough about already? Why not offer some counterpoints to these men’s skewed worldviews or challenge the hateful ways in which they conduct themselves? It calls to mind the following meme:
We know there are incels. We know they lead sad lives. What we don’t know while watching TFW NO GF is what to do with this information and, more importantly, if the film is going to say anything of substance about it?
Moyer poses the idea that our online lives are inextricably tied to our lives offline. Though, she doesn’t let the theme drive home by then wondering if men whose entire online personas consist of hating women and wanting to commit acts of violence might actually not be saying a hell of a lot about their true selves. A better documentary might realize that oftentimes our online personas are our true selves – unbridled, unfiltered, and free from any social consequences outside of the internet. A better documentary would say anything at all.
The issue here is not with the documentary empathizing the sad lives these men lead. It is sad and there is a level of understanding anyone can have towards what drives these people to the fringes of society, where one’s only consolation is those others living on the fringe. We can understand why people choose to act abhorrently, but that does not mean we have to think that it’s okay. What is problematic, rather, is that the documentary seems to think that because these men are sad, it excuses their hateful online rhetoric. One of the men tweets about hitting a woman so hard that her body collapses and laughs off suggestions of himself possibly committing real-life violence. One can only empathize for so long before wanting some sort of accountability for the very real implications of such “jokes”.
One of the film’s biggest moments comes when the camera, mounted on a drone and set to a gorgeous synth-based score, descends in a circle around one of the subjects, as he lay underneath a streetlight. A moment reminiscent of innumerable ‘cool guy’ films in which a troubled man ponders his actions within the grander scheme of his existence in a cold and indifferent universe. These men believe they are the counterculture. Punk rockers for the 21st century, ready to take on anyone threatening to ruin their good time on the internet.
This is, of course, deluded.
Despite this, the film offers zero pushback, with not even the slightest tinge of criticism. A subject in the film is contacted by authorities for posting an image on Twitter of himself wielding two large guns with the caption “one ticket for Joker please”. Even though his guns were lawfully seized, this event is depicted as the man sees it – believing it to be an overreaction and an infringement of his 1st amendment rights. This is silly as all hell, especially after the surge in public U.S. shootings, but of course, the film does not question or even stop to consider the harm of something like this. Not long after, in fact, we are shown what amounts to an action scene of that same man and his brother firing guns set to more synth score. It’s all style and surface-level examination, with absolutely zero insight.
In the age of irony poisoning and extreme online behavior, we need films that engage with the ideas of TFW NO GF. It is an unprecedented time where culture is moving faster than ever and the ways we interact with each other get more complex with every passing day… but we don’t need to be told that these things are happening. We know that. We want to know how, why, and what it all means. The film is filled with great visuals, gorgeous music, fascinating subjects, and intriguing ideas – but what does it matter if it has nothing to say? It ends up feeling like irresponsible glorification meant for a laugh when it could and should have been so much more.
TFW NO GF was chosen to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. The film opted to participate in the festival’s quarantine inspired collaboration with Prime Video. It can be streamed for free here only for 10 days following the April 27 launch.
Follow writer Frankie Gilmore on Twitter: @yahboyantman