The found-footage approach to cinematic narrative is no longer epitomized by “The Blair Witch Project.” Amateur-quality camerawork has become a part of the vernacular, with the first-person perspective providing an intimate window into human behavior, particularly among the youth culture most capable of using the device to record itself. Shot exclusively on iPhones, “King Kelly” turns that tendency into an American horror show, delivering a ferocious indictment of Generation Me by boiling it down to a single ditzy teen.
From the uneasy opening moments, “King Kelly” foregrounds its conceit. Unbeknownst to her clueless parents in the next room, nubile blond Kelly (Louisa Krause) runs an online sex show in the bedroom of her suburban home. The first shot shows Kelly indulging in graphic masturbation performance for her paying admirers, whose online tips rapidly embolden her outsized self-confidence. Later, she’s seen traipsing around her room in star-spangled underpants, rehearsing another bit for her encouraging pal Jordan (Libby Woodbridge). Together, they represent ugly American stereotypes in physical terms.
An assertive valley girl frustrated with anyone who challenges her carefree attitude, Kelly annoys the hell out of her family and friends by thrusting her all-seeing phone at them as if it were an extension of her own eyes. And she’s not the only one: Jordan’s similar tendency enables director Andrew Neel to shift angles as well as broaden the perception of the entire movie exists within the stream-of-conciousness vernacular of rebellious teens.
That conceit alone might sustain a short film, but “King Kelly” springs to life when it erupts into a pulpy crime story about a 4th of July celebration gone wrong. Kelly discovers that her ex nabbed her car and headed to Staten Island, not realizing that the trunk contained a hefty load of narcotics. On a desperate mission to recover the goods, Kelly embarks on a crazed misadventure that leaves the realm of credibility but furthers the perception of a party-fueled culture devolving into demented narcissism.
Neel previously co-directed “Darkon,” a perceptive look at fantasy role-playing communities that took the hobby at face value rather than mocking it. “King Kelly” also adopts an anthropological approach, but in this case the results are meant to disturb. Down the rabbit hole of excess, he initially portrays Kelly as an irredeemable troublemaker in need of comeuppance. Eventually, he transforms her into a monster that even the law (embodied by an easily seduced state trooper whom she dubs “Pooh Bear”) can’t touch.
Although impressively structured, the framing device isn’t always believable. Arms constantly outstretched to capture each new development, Kelly and Jordan barely seem capable of face-to-face interaction. (Do teenagers actually record this much of their lives? If so, future historians will need a lot of help sifting through the digital detritus.) At the height of the movie’s meta effect, one phone records the screen of another and captures a series of snarky Facebook comments. Technological derangement never felt so naked.
The sensationalistic aspects of “King Kelly” only add to its allure. (As one of Kelly’s acquaintances puts it when made aware of her dilemma: “This is so fucking Jerry Springer.”) By its grotesque final shot, the movie has made a strong argument against the boundless empowerment of the social networking age. It’s an unflinching update to media scholar Neil Postman’s prophetic claim about the deadly impact of television on cultural identity: Smartphones in hand, we face the danger of filming ourselves to death.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sure to be divisive even among SXSW’s open-minded audiences, “King Kelly” nevertheless has enough of a lively hook to justify a midsize distributor’s attention and will attract interest among audiences despite mixed reviews. It also stands to greatly benefit from online marketing that could play up its digital media theme.