Review: With a Compelling Central Performance, Influencer Makes the Instagram Life a Dangerous Career Choice

In ways that probably won’t make any sense unless you actually see Influencer, the new film by director Kurtis David Harder (Spiral, Summerland) about popular social media figures has a similar structure to Psycho, in that there’s a bit of a misdirect near the beginning of the movie in terms of who the actual victim is, and another one near the end that’s meant to severely shock you. And it all comes together rather nicely thanks to some exceedingly confident storytelling and top-notch acting that warns would-be influencers that if you don’t take you eyes off your phone, you may miss some very obvious dangers and life lessons.

The film begins as the story of Madison (Emily Tennant), a fairly successful influencer who seems to be living the good life, taking trips to exotic locations with her boyfriend Ryan (Rory J. Saper), posting sponsored content, getting access to in-demand products before they’re even released, and having friends and followers hang on her every post. But her ideal vacation becomes something of an uneventful bummer when Ryan cancels at the last minute and she’s forced to endure the good life as a solo act. Days into the trip, she meets a fellow traveler named CW (Cassandra Naud), a fearless beauty with a rather large birthmark under her right eye. The two become fast friends, and CW offers to take Madison to some post-worthy destinations that capture the authentic Thai experience outside of Madison’s five-star lodgings.

The last of these destinations is a remote, deserted island with no cell service and not in any shipping lanes. It is there that CW makes her true intentions known. She’s not a stalker or secretly in love with Madison. She wants to abandon her on the island to die and take over her online life to make people things she’s taking a break from being a social media darling, although she does post the occasional content to let the world know that Madison is still kicking. At this point, Influencer is fully CW’s story and we watch her set up her next victim, another rising Instagram star named Jessica (Sara Canning), who is a little more suspicious and never quite trusts CW’s friendly routine. And just at the exact wrong time, Ryan shows up looking for Madison, only to find CW fully moved into her rented house.

CW is the most fascinating character in the film, since you can’t help wonder why she has such a bone to pick with these shallow content creators. There are hints that maybe her barely-there disfigurement made her a target on social media, but if that’s the case, it’s never explicitly mentioned. Or maybe she just hates phonies, as is more likely the case, considering that she appears to be getting ready to take Jessica to the remote island to join what we imagine will be Madison’s skeleton.

Naud is the real discovery here for me. CW is resourceful, intelligent, and a great improviser when her plans are thrown off-track, and Naud sells these traits note perfectly. The film eventually turns into a guessing game with other characters trying to figure out if CW is dangerous or just pathetic. It turns out she’s a bit of both, but mostly just dangerous (if you have a certain number of followers). The film isn’t especially scary or even that suspenseful, but it’s tough not getting pulled in just to see where things are going and what new curveballs CW will have to deal with. More than anything, Influencer is just fun, primarily for the strong performances but also for the beautiful locations and general disdain for influencers of all kinds. They may not deserve to die, but they still suck.

The film is now streaming on Shudder.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.