Review: New doc 'Bama Rush' takes a wider look at sorority life in the age of TikTok
For the record:
1:04 p.m. May 26, 2023: The revenge thriller “Wrath of Becky,” starring Lulu Wilson, was incorrectly included in an earlier version of this story. It is playing theatrically in general release, but is not yet available via VOD.
One of the wonders — and horrors — of our modern social media age is that some decades-old regional rituals and traditions have been turned into miniature reality TV shows, shared online with millions of people worldwide who may not always understand the context for what they’re watching. Rachel Fleit’s documentary “Bama Rush” was inspired in part by the fascination on TikTok with the complicated process by which the University of Alabama’s sororities select new members. Each year, candidates post short videos about their outfits and anxieties, while people watching from afar judge and mock them. Fleit though takes these aspiring sisters seriously, and tries to understand what they really want out of Greek life — and exactly what they’re in for.
Fleit makes herself a character in her film occasionally, talking about how her own challenges — as a woman with alopecia, who wore a wig throughout her youth to fit in — perhaps makes her more attuned to how badly these young women crave acceptance. She follows four freshmen in particular, some of whom hire professional consultants and maintain thick organizational binders to maximize their potential success. It’s a unique challenge: to be “themselves” within acceptably conformist parameters.
Fleit acknowledges that the rumors about her documentary made many Alabama students too paranoid to participate. Despite the big freeze, she gets a lot of honest insights both from current sorority sisters and alumni, who talk about the downsides of this culture — like body-image issues, a history of racism and sexism, and the ominous interventions of a super-secret society known as “the Machine” — along with the benefits of lifelong friendships, community service and social advantages. There’s a lot about the whole sorority phenomenon that could never fit within the narrow rectangle of a cellphone app. So “Bama Rush” widens the frame.
‘Bama Rush.’ TV-MA, for language. 1 hour, 40 minutes. Available on Max
It’s hard to explain what’s special about writer-director Kurtis David Harder’s psychological thriller “Influencer” without spoiling its surprises. In the broadest possible terms, this is a film about four people crossing paths in Thailand and trying to take things from one another. Two of them are tourists who run popular social media accounts: the adventurous Madison (Emily Tennant) and the more jaded Jessica (Sara Canning). Another is Madison’s manager and on-again/off-again boyfriend Ryan (Rory J. Saper). And then there’s CW (Cassandra Naud), a local who has a striking birthmark under her right eye and a knack for altering her personality to suit anyone’s needs.
Harder and his co-writer Tesh Guttikonda give each of these people their turn at being the protagonist, but it’s not always clear which of them is the antagonist. As they meet — not always by chance — each is superficially friendly but hiding an agenda. Madison wants to tap into CW’s worldly authenticity for her feed. Jessica wants to bask in CW’s fake adoration. CW wants to leech off Madison and Jessica’s luxurious lifestyles. And Ryan wants to exploit all three women for clicks and sponsorship deals.
“Influencer” has the same kind of crafty plot as a Patricia Highsmith novel, taking audiences so deep inside the machinations of not-so-nice people that we’re left wondering where our sympathies should lie. Though the movie falls a bit short in character and theme, Harder preserves the story’s shocks by having the players remain aloof and unknowable from moment to moment, which keeps the overall picture’s meaning vague. Still, just on a surface level this is an alluring film, all about what happens when people bring their carefully constructed online personas into the messier, bloodier real world.
‘Influencer.’ Not rated. 1 hours, 32 minutes. Available on Shudder
‘Unclenching the Fists’
The grim domestic drama “Unclenching the Fists” is set in a small mining town in the North Caucasus region of Russia, where a young woman named Ada (Milana Aguzarova) is trapped: by the debilitating wounds from a violent childhood, by a domineering father (Alik Karaev) who represses her femininity and freedom of movement, and by a patriarchal culture that values women mainly for sex or service. Writer-director Kira Kovalenko won the Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2021 for her stark slice-of-life, which follows Ada as she tries to change her lot — either by following in the footsteps of an older brother (Soslan Khugaev) who left town or by marrying a dimwitted neighbor boy (Arsen Khetagurov). Kovalenko keeps the frame tightly on Ada throughout the film, catching the way she shrinks away from all the men constantly pawing at her and making demands. This is a different kind of prison escape picture, focusing on the stifling confines of a life devoid of possibility.
‘Unclenching the Fists.’ In Russian and Ossetic with English subtitles. Not rated. 1 hour, 37 minutes. Available on Mubi
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.