Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary “American Selfie” is really a selfie of its own, a snapshot of America today, a testament to the things we’re sharing, for better and (mostly) worse. Despite an early flirtation with quite literally covering the culture of “selfies” — it opens with an energetic run of interviews with Chicago tourists, all of whom are far too eager to talk about their personal selfie philosophy — Pelosi’s documentary goes much further. Billed as a “12-month journey” through America during a particularly tumultuous year, one that Pelosi posits forever changed American consumers’ relationships with the smartphone, “American Selfie” is an urgent look at a fractured country and culture.
While the film’s actual engagement with smartphones and selfies often feels tangential (particularly after such a pointed opening), many audience members will likely feel compelled to hurl their phone across the room while watching, if only in the hope of distancing themselves from the never-ending parade of horror they pipe into our hands. Pelosi, however, can’t turn away, and while the documentary often lingers between the gulf of “wide-ranging” and “scattershot,” the amount of extremely timely material it contains is impressive. Imagine your Twitter feed come to life, only to spit out a year’s worth of America’s worst headlines and troubles.
Kicking off in September 2019 and running right up until mere weeks ago, each segment of Pelosi’s film could frame its own documentary, a fact the filmmaker seems all too aware of, only pulling herself away from riveting scenes because time is, somehow, marching on. If there was something big happening in America in the last twelve months, Pelosi was there to cover it, from the weird convergence of an iPhone release and a global climate march (which took place in NYC on the same September day), to a deeply painful series of funerals for COVID-19 victims.
Pelosi (who happens to be Nancy’s daughter) is no stranger to hitting the road to find out what’s really going on, and she previously traversed the nation in such lauded documentaries as “Journeys with George” and “Citizen USA: A 50 State Road Trip.” The filmmaker is always eager to get in there and engage her subjects, and the documentary’s incredible verite footage and intimate interviews are reflective of that aim. She’s a skilled and seemingly fearless interviewer, but some of her questions are unnerving to the point of hurting the film, such as when she asks a man why he’s a drug addict (her more lighthearted query as to if a pro-life activist if calls pro-choice people in her own family “baby killer” comes off a little better).
Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films/SHOWTIME
While the film is equal in its treatment of subjects, always showing both sides, it isn’t always even in its approach, but that might be because some people who readily appear on camera — like the pro-Trump rally attendee who practically spits as she screams about how America has become overrun with people “speaking Asian,” to name just one — should indeed feel ashamed by what they’re so happily spouting to a camera and a stranger. What are they willing to share? Nothing good, but much of it reflective of what’s happening in America right now.
As Pelosi skips from state to state, divisive event to divisive event, “American Selfie” can’t help but sting. One moment, she’s chatting with asylum seekers at the Mexican border; the next, she’s dealing with drag queens celebrating Christmas amidst glassy-eyed protesters. She dips into Black Friday shopping patterns and what the last night in New York City looked like before lockdown began. One week, she’s in Minneapolis in the spot George Floyd died; moments later, she’s in a makeshift morgue in New York City. Everywhere, there are people screaming to be heard, usually too loudly to hear what anyone else is saying (especially the people who might not be screaming the same things as them).
It’s nearly impossible to absorb all this rage, but Pelosi endeavors to synthesize it into one frenetic portrait of a country on the brink. It may not reflect America the way anyone would like to see it, but that doesn’t stop it from forcing its audience to look closer, to engage with it, and see themselves reflected back in a snapshot that hopefully doesn’t stick around.
“American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself” will premiere on Showtime on Friday, October 23 at 9PM ET.