Thirteen-year-old Toni is an oddball having a tough time at her school. In the classrooms and hallways, she's quiet, shy and introverted, and a prime target for the other students.
But Toni has an outlet: she has her own channel on YouTube, where she dresses up and lip-syncs to her favorite songs. Her performances and videos reflect an unbridled sense of joy and vivacity, and she interacts with her viewers with infectious friendliness. When she has to pull together a presentation for class, she sees an opportunity for her worlds to come together.
That presentation, though, is tweeted by one of her more malicious classmates, who comments on its "cringiness." Toni is at first humiliated in the very space where she finds self-expression and freedom. But then the Internet comes to the rescue, embracing Toni's positive spirit and sharing it farther than she ever could have imagined.
Writer-director Marco Alessi, along with writer Mary Antony, have crafted a stylish, sweetly engaging dramatic short that evokes the almost utopian promise of the early Internet, reminding us of its ability to connect, inspire and validate unique voices and self-expression.
As fitting to a story about the Internet, the film is conversant with the visual lingua franca of online life, such as video filters and how they subtly shift our perception and imagination. And certainly, the storytelling has the brisk movement and pacing demanded by the mobile and social media where content is consumed.
But the film visually retains the hallmark of a more classical, considered approach to cinematic craftsmanship, with the precise eye for lighting, color and composition. There is an almost painterly sense to the visuals, which toggle between a muted naturalism in Toni's "real life" and the gorgeous, gently magical mode of her private online one, which features stunning use of lighting and an almost whimsical sense of detail in the mise-en-scene -- all of which express Toni's constrained social milieu and her rich inner world.
Young actor Maddie Holliday -- set to feature in Disney's upcoming Home Alone reboot with Ellie Kempner -- is able to give a performance that bridges these two worlds, expressing both the awkwardness of her real-life self and the free spirit of her online persona. The acting stays true to the demands of each beat, but it also expresses the sophisticated idea that we have multiple sides to ourselves. Each dimension of that self is often isolated from one another in a series of walled gardens: we can never quite be fully who we are or long to be in any one area of our life, except perhaps online in a more innocent time. But when Toni is able to bring the adventurousness of one world into another -- and bring that radiance even farther than she intended -- she's able to be her fullest self anywhere she goes.
Many films about the Internet and "digital natives" are almost dystopian in their psychologies, but the ending of "Toni With an I" is resolutely upbeat and uplifting, though it doesn't shy away from the potential toxicity of online communication. Instead, it's a reminder that online spaces are often where we can play with and express the most radiant, rhapsodic yearnings of our hearts, or experiment with our ever-evolving self-expressions -- and find community and solidarity for it. As Toni herself says in her video, "There is so much to smile about." And much of it can be found in the various online outlets that make up our lives -- we just have to celebrate and share it.