How 'Like Me' Used Psychedelic Imagery (and the words of Guillermo del Toro) to Explore Loneliness
Director Robert Mockler's radical view of a woman in search of companionship and chaos proves more than meets the eye.
The viewer's first glimpse of Kiya (Addison Timlin), the quasi-heroine of Robert Mockler's debut film Like Me, shows her laughing in a state of crazed exhilaration. Why not? She's just held up a convenience store—the owner wet his pants—and recorded the whole thing, now rushing home to post the video online. The manic chorus of Carol of the Bells plays on the soundtrack, and then we're off on a long, strange trip leading through scenes of both intense and quiet, reflective moments, full of intimate and vulnerable integrity.
Kiya is a bit of a serial humiliator, engaging with strangers, taking them aside, tieing them up, and stuffing their faces with candy. Or at least she does this to Marshall (played by indie horror figure Larry Fessenden) in the film's most prolonged and meaningful encounter.
It could be said that the film is hard on the nerves, with its violence and radical visual approach—we get recurring moments of hallucinatory, psychedelic freeze-frames set to industrial, grating bursts of noise—and yet it could also be said that it conditions the soul with a cautionary tale about letting go of human contact in favor of more dispersed, soulless, online communication. The world "out there" comes to Kiya in the form of the usual ranters one might find in a comments section, spilling their guts in funny video comments (some hilarious and some disturbing). She ultimately tracks down the most vicious of these commenters (Ian Nelson), and, well, things happen from there...
As the film debuts across digital platforms this week, NFS spoke with Mockler about how he built his film and what it might have to say about the surroundings it finds itself in.
No Film School: How did your attitude toward the character of Kiva evolve during the making of the film?
Robert Mockler: Tough to say. It's been a long journey and I've changed so much over the five years of developing the project and trying to get it off the ground. For me to try and condense that into an answer is overwhelming. What was there from the onset was the desire to explore loneliness and isolation through her journey. Guillermo Del Toro actually helped orient my understanding of the character and her story. I saw a speech that Del Toro had given where he was talking about Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. I hope I'm not taking his thoughts out of context in any way, but he said that, to him, Frankenstein is about the essential loneliness of humankind. It's about being thrust into a world that you didn't create and that you don't understand. Bride of Frankenstein is about the absolute compulsion for company, the need not be alone in such a world. We tried to explore those two concepts with Like Me.
We jump right in with Addison Timlin's character who is at the start of exploding into this existential crisis. In many ways, she's actively rejecting the world around her because it doesn't make sense to her. She is ultimately in search of a companion to try to at least to ease some of the pain and confusion of being thrust into a world she didn't create and she doesn't understand. Companionship can perhaps create meaning out of a world that can so easily appear meaningless. She looks for that companion throughout the film and fails to find one until she stumbles into Larry Fessenden's character, Marshall, who is consumed by loneliness and isolation in his own way.
"I really respect Michael Haneke's work. He once said, 'art doesn’t offer answers, only questions.' In some ways, I feel I've already said too much."
NFS: Was there improvisation involved in the development of Kiya's character?
Mockler: Very little. Our schedule was tight and losing time could have been devastating to the production. We didn't have the luxury of too much experimentation in terms of altering major story beats through improvisation. However, Addison came up with so many brilliant nuances and subtleties that layered the character with a necessary complexity. Addison is a genius.
NFS: At one point, Kiya has a great exchange with a child, in which she asks the child, "Why did you shoot me?" and the child responds, "Just having fun." Kiya's response? "Good answer." How does the film comment on the nature of fun and on the idea of play, given that there's an anarchic quality to a lot of Kiya's actions that could be seen, in one sense, as serious/dangerous play?
Mockler: Kiya's interaction with the little girl is connected to her interaction with the homeless man in many ways, which happens earlier in the film. Going back to Del Toro's thoughts on Frankenstein: Kiya is testing out her companionship with different figures throughout the story. If her conversation with the homeless man had gone differently, then she may have stopped everything. Instead, that interaction pushes her further.
The same could be said for when she meets the little girl at the gas station. Had that interaction gone a little differently then she may have stopped everything all together and her journey would have, of course, been very different. When Kiya engages with the child at the gas station, I think she is confronting her own innocence on some level. Kiya probably sees herself in that child in many ways. The kid is wielding a toy gun and pretends to shoot her. I don't think that child has a real understanding of violence. I know I didn't at that age. My understanding was limited to abstract representations that most often didn't represent hardcore violence with complete consequences.
When the child says, "I was just having fun," and Kiya responds "Good answer," I think her response is layered. I'm always reluctant to completely spell these things out, so I have to leave some room here, and I'm sure I'll regret this later, but she is saying one thing to the child on the surface, and underneath that surface layer, I think there are other things going on.
I think what's left of her own innocence is quickly melting away. Kiya is recognizing that, on some level, in the moment. That's compounded by this very absurd and disturbing reality that she's being confronted with recognizing that kids run around pretending to shoot people while joking that they are "just having fun." That's resonating with her from a new perspective. I think that's quickly channeled into some kind of angry, spiteful irreverence. In some ways, she may be thinking, "well, they made us this way."
NFS: What do you think the film says about the relationship between online life (e.g., Kiya's website) and real, in-person life?
Mockler: That's one of those things I'd rather leave for others to determine. I really respect Michael Haneke's work. He once said, “art doesn’t offer answers, only questions.” In some ways, I feel I've already said too much. I hope we've asked questions that will facilitate a fruitful dialogue.
Also, I suppose part of that answer would involve Burt to some degree, played by Ian Nelson. He's sort of the antagonist in the film. He's a parasitic personality that is sort of the distillation of the worst aspects of people on the internet. He's someone who's more interested in displaying intellectual dominance or self-determined moral purity over others than adding anything constructive to the conversation. It often feels like there are so many people who are trying to condemn one another rather than try to understand one another. That's just my own empirical observation.
"[The character] is caught in this confusing dance between performance art and a reckless protest against society."
NFS: At times, the violence in the film seems as symbolic as it is visceral; Kiya seems totally disconnected from it. Could you say a little bit about how the film straddles symbolism and realism in this aspect?
Mockler: Well, I think there are acts of violence that she commits, which are kind of purely performative. There is certainly a level of dissociation in that sense. She is caught in this confusing dance between performance art and a reckless protest against society. She is reflecting our desire to consume exploitative content among many other toxic online proclivities. Some of the violence at the beginning of the film is partly an illusion, which is kind of connected to the question of the child at the gas station, in that we often experience the illusion of violence before we experience real violence.
Part of her disconnectedness could be attributed to her youth. Part of her disconnectedness could be because she was raised by a culture that seems to worship violence and the humiliation of others. However, there is a moment in the film that's intended to be very sobering, when she feels her impact in a very real way. And I think we see a change in her through the reaction to that specific act of violence. Hopefully, this is thoughtful enough without spoiling too much. That's always a challenge to navigate...
NFS: In many moments, the film distorts the experience with freeze-frame, noise distortion, colored lenses, etc. How do you see the function of those moments? Are they transitions? A form of punctuation?
Mockler: They are kind of a deep dive into Kiya's brain. The idea was to convey a sort of fragmented state of being and to allow a window into a more abstract stream of emotions. Sometimes those emotions collide in a discordant and unpleasant way. Her reality is persistently being captured, edited, curated, or suspended in some fashion. Simultaneously, she is at war with her own biology. Her sense of identity is murky and confused, and her perception of the world is augmented by adrenaline, anger, alienation, emptiness, etc. These are things I've struggled with all of my life in my own way and that I continue to struggle with.
There's also this sense of being suffocated by information—this feeling like you have to constantly consume something. That consumption is almost both invigorating and sickening at the same time. All of these feelings and ideas were intended to be infused in those sequences.
A film that was very inspiring, in many ways, to my editing/producing partner Jessalyn Abbott and I was Věra Chytilová's Daisies. It was particularly influential to those sequences. Our sequences may have taken a different form, but the influence was there. I think everyone should give that film a try. It's wonderful.