16-year-old Sophie is obsessed with Instagram, but when she posts a photo that her mother considers too risque, Sophie is punished, forced to stay at home without a phone while her family attends an event.
Sophie is more than happy with this and is content to drink wine and work on her tan while she’s stuck at home. But then one of her Instagram followers, a mysterious Internet stranger named Jimmy Flowers, shows up in a decommissioned cop car with a strange, damaged friend and engages her in an intriguing gambit.
At first, Sophie likes the attention and enjoys the fascination that her beauty exerts over Jimmy, who is clearly obsessed with Sophie. But as their encounter grows more unnerving and sinister, Sophie begins to realize she’s not as grown-up and sophisticated as she thinks.
Writer-director Stephanie Szerlip’s stylish drama — based on the classic Joyce Carol Oates short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” — has an innate high-low glamour that reflects its main character, managing to be both retro-nostalgic in certain ways but utterly modern in others. Though the story unfolds within a contemporary framework with a Southern Gothic twist, it echoes the almost eternal resonance of its themes, such as the gap between appearances and reality, and the lines between empowerment and victimization when it comes to young female sexuality.
With such a literary pedigree, the writing has a strong foundation to draw upon, but it’s cleverly and imaginatively updated for today, with its emphasis on social media and the way we live out our lives on camera. Sophie’s passion for Instagram — and her enjoyment of others looking at her — dovetails perfectly with the original short story’s exploration of who the main character imagines herself to be, versus the person she is in private.
The film’s craftsmanship possesses its own dualities that reflect its main character, especially with its sense of vivid, bright, almost aggressively feminine colors and details that would not be out of place in a Sofia Coppola film. But the editing, soundtrack and camera movements often evoke something of the late 70s and early 80s, where uniquely dark, off-kilter thrillers like “River’s Edge” leveraged suspense and danger to explore teenage rebellion and restlessness and societal malaise.
Sophie, of course, is the ultimate restless teenage girl, played by actor Logan Polish with a delicate seductive power, classic teen petulance and glimpses of insecurity and vulnerability. When her persistent follower Jimmy seeks her out, Sophie is more than happy to welcome him into her orbit. But their interaction has a weird edginess to it, thanks to actor Jack Kilmer, who plays Jimmy with an almost demonic knowingness and sly menace. And as it unfolds, the situation begins to become more unruly and perverse. Sophie’s mask falls, and the sexy siren she plays at on social media reveals itself to have only a hollow power, especially as Jimmy’s own veneer changes into a genuine malevolence. Sophie then must face the truth about who she truly is underneath the surface.
Like the story it’s adapted from, “The Follower” is a keenly observed story about beauty, innocence and seduction and how those aspects construct a femininity that is powerful and intoxicating, both to one’s self and to others. But perhaps most of all, it’s a cautionary tale about the traps we fall into when we can’t see ourselves clearly, and become so convinced by our own image that we forget what truths lie deep inside.