A confused millennial artist and filmmaker out of L.A. uses her life as a canvas as she curates a social media presence, all in the attempt to portray herself through a sunny, carefree, seemingly effortless lens.
But the act of curation and creation is, behind the scenes, laborious and almost exhausting, and as she becomes caught up in the social media whirl, the lines between fiction and reality blur. In one attempt to capture a perfect social media moment, she discovers something heartbreaking about a personal relationship, and the cracks in her public persona end up revealing something truer and more authentic than she ever expected.
Writer-director Kailee McGee’s offbeat, funny yet unexpected sweet and affecting comedy takes the guise initially of a faux-documentary, capturing the glossy surface of her hip, creative life in Los Angeles. With a kind of dry, knowingly naive voiceover, she offers up her self-portrait and life to the audience, both in the film and in social media mode.
The irony and comedy comes from just how much work Kailee puts into her efforts to make life look spontaneous, shiny and fun for the camera. She hires a photographer and cinematographer to create scenes and capture moments for her feeds, directing herself and the camera to create illusion of a life happening right in front of the camera.
All of this is captured in beautifully vivid images and colors — and soundtracked with engaging pop and electronic sounds — that situate Kailee in her sun-soaked, airy milieu, making the film a genuine treat for the eyes and ears.
The film pokes fun at her efforts but it also takes pains to portray how much of Kailee’s world and social circles are inundated with the ethos of social media. People are introduced in the film by their names and number of followers; events and emotions are judged by their Instagram-worthiness. It’s all affectionately satirical and funny, but it’s also an externalization of the way social media has permeated our consciousness — and as a result, our sense of self.
The film presents itself initially as perhaps the ultimate YouTube blogger video, complete with quicksilver editing and beautifully saturated vignettes. But as Kailee’s efforts to curate an ideal self intensify, it cleverly pivots into an emotionally engaging narrative about a woman trying to find her identity and authenticity.
The pivot is handled with a sly, sneaky grace and intelligence that shows a light but firm control of the storytelling, in a staged confessional scene that starts off managed but devolves into a unexpected revelation for Kailee, and that heartbreak can’t help but seep into her efforts.
Kailee parlays that difficult emotion into something that resembles genuine art, and achieves a small but authentic transcendence in the process that feels all the more “perfect” for being imperfect and heartfelt.
“The Person I Am When No One Is Looking” could easily masquerade as a self-consciously quirky millennial faux-documentary about the travails of the social media age. But in the end, it is an emotionally engaging narrative with a clear arc of growth and self-realization for its main character.
Yet the film doesn’t demonize social media — it shows how that emotional and mental effort can be channeled towards something more than “influence” or otherwise flattening ourselves to fit into a feed.
By embracing our messiness and imperfection — and eschewing “effortlessness” in favor of the hard work of self-growth — we can use it to turn our selves and our stories into creative works of art that genuinely create connection, compassion and the sense that we aren’t alone.