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‘TikTok, Boom.’ Review: Technology and Influencer Documentary Tries Too Hard to Be Everything at Once

Sundance: Shalini Kantayya’s follow-up to “Coded Bias” is far too fragmented to really engage.

Spencer X appears in TikTok Boom by Shalini Kantayya, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Spencer X in “TikTok, Boom.”

Sundance

The opening frames of “TikTok, Boom.” feature an extreme closeup of a ring-light reflected in a content creator’s eye. It is, at once, a reminder of a familiar cinematic image — the opening of the 1982 film “Blade Runner,” which explores the intersection of humanity and technology — and a promise of an up-close, intimate look at the omnipresent details of digital media, which you may or may not have noticed. However, Shalini Kantayya’s 90-minute documentary fails to live up to the tongue-in-cheek grandeur of this punchy introduction. It frequently finds itself torn between personal stories and a chilling bigger picture, in a way that struggles to blend and reconcile them.

The film chronicles both the rise of Chinese social media giant TikTok as well as the viral success found by some its young creators — among them, beatboxer Spencer X and activists Deja Foxx and Feroza Aziz — as it weaves in and out of stories about privacy in the tech sector and the app’s eventual overlap with global politics. TikTok was a lightning rod for U.S.-China relations under the Trump White House, and the film’s latter half deftly captures at least some of that scope. However, en route to this vital development, it feels far too fragmented. It touches only on the basic premise of each idea, for a brief moment at a time, before charging swiftly to its next check-point.

The result is less a coherent tapestry of an evolving digital world, and more akin to TikTok’s own algorithmic “For You” page — though not in any way that feels intentional or mirrors the experience of using the app — cycling through truncated snippets, each carefully curated towards anyone with a vague interest in the subject, though it rarely explores any one concept long enough for it to matter.

An enormous part of the problem is that “TikTok, Boom.” feels entirely undiscerning in its selection of personal tales. Each creator on which it focuses has an interesting story to tell, some of which even intersect with the broader narrative about censorship in the digital age, but it features so many personal threads, in so little time, that each one ends up slotted across the film in mechanical fashion. The creators are introduced, before the film switches to journalistic talking heads who contextualize the tech landscape; some of the creators are then afforded a middle section, where their personal issues come to the fore before the journalists return; finally, the creators appear once final time to wind up stories that the film never fully began telling in the first place.

This rote and over-stuffed approach is made all the more frustrating by the fact that Kantayya has, in fact, succeeded at balancing the micro and macro of the digital world before. Her chilling 2020 Sundance doc “Coded Bias” mostly used a single, central subject — computer scientist Joy Buolamwini — as its guide through the unsettling rabbit-hole of racism in A.I., beginning with her own experiences as a Black woman in tech.

“TikTok, Boom.” does, at least, offer similar hints of a cultural thread running throughout its story; Spencer and Aziz, the children of Asian immigrants (like Kantayya herself) find belonging and community on TikTok, while Chinese-American creator Jason Zhang, who moves from Brooklyn to Beijing, feels culturally unmoored, and is tasked with being Kantayya’s eyes and ears in China (he uses the Chinese version of the app, Douyin). There’s a rigor, one assumes, to the questions Kantayya asks them, because their answers paint a vivid picture, as they recall the more harrowing parts of their experiences in a world where they’re hyper-visible, and hyper-scrutinized, as Asian Americans with something unconventional and challenging to say.

However, despite the many times TikTok is spoken of in a geopolitical context, the analysis is frustratingly U.S.-centric for an app that was popular elsewhere for years before it hit the American market. The film, for instance, goes long about the potential of the app being banned in America as an extension of anti-Chinese sentiment, though instances of this actually happening elsewhere, such as in India (which had 200 million users), are largely ignored. Furthermore, its U.S.-centricity is so spread out over so many narrative elements — from online harassment and the app’s impact on teenage development, to the shift in global power structures, to data collection and related legalese — that the aforementioned subjects, Spencer, Aziz, and Zhang, are eventually afforded little by way of insight as Asian Americans, despite attempts to frame this part of their experience as key to the global TikTok narrative. What these artists say directly into the camera is somewhat interesting, but they’ve also said it in more flowery, energetic, and visually engaging ways in their own TikTok videos.

One fascinating thing about the film’s approach is that it introduces many of its political stories using fear-mongering ideas about China, with which people might already be familiar. But as the film goes on, it begins to parse these claims in an attempt to separate truth from fiction. It’s a continuing bait-and-switch that will likely keep some viewers on their toes, though one wonders if this recontextualization will convince anyone susceptible to it in the first place. After all, this information is mostly presented as words spoken at the lens, rather than images that stir, or last, or permeate (one exception is a dimly lit dramatization of a confession by a Chinese TikTok employee, a woman presented in shadow, but this scene happens to fall in the “confirmation” category, rather than a refutation of existing biases).

The film, in trying to be about TikTok from every conceivable angle, ends up featuring little of substance, and its straightforward presentation rarely justifies its approach. While Katya Mihailova’s eerie music creates a sense of intrigue — an element of “Coded Bias” that carries over admirably — the filmmaking is otherwise bog-standard, with talking-heads providing contextual expertise interspersed with largely interchangeable footage.

“TikTok, Boom.” may not be an aesthetic analysis of the app, but each time it features clips of viral TikToks, it becomes a reminder of how much more inventive and energetic its own visual fabric could be. Instead, it discusses the dangers of a novel technology using techniques from the 1980s, imbuing iPhone cameras with the text-on-screen gaze of “The Terminator” or “RoboCop.” Perhaps this might ease older viewers into understanding new ideas, but the film’s extemporizing about Gen Z as digital natives is rarely complimented by an aesthetic understanding of this experience. “TikTok, Boom.” may be chock-full of disquieting information, but it’s rarely more than a list of bullet-points.

Grade: C

“TikTok, Boom.” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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