One of the first major events to be cancelled due to COVID-19 was South by Southwest (SXSW), a film festival in Austin, Texas that represents a major landmark in the cinematic calendar. While most of the films due to premiere there are holding out for similar prominence, a selection of this year’s lineup has moved to Amazon Prime for a limited SXSW event, available for free from Monday, April 27 to Wednesday, May 6. I’ll be making my way through the online festival over the next few days, but for the sake of this review, I decided to make the documentary TFW No GF my point of entry.
Named for the meme that stands for “that feel when no girlfriend,” editor-turned-director Alex Lee Moyer’s debut feature takes a narrow, empathetic approach to the internet subculture of lonely, disaffected young men that turn to websites like twitter and 4chan for the community they find themselves alienated from in reality. The film rarely invokes the most famous label for this demographic— incel, a portmanteau of “involuntary celibate” that comes attached to a doctrine of male entitlement, misogyny, and violence— as an attempt at shielding its subjects from whatever preconceptions an overwhelmingly negative media presence has inevitably created in viewers. This subculture has been largely misunderstood, TFW No GF argues, and Moyer splices together several interviews with five individuals across the United States in the hope of correcting that.
Whether or not it succeeds depends upon how you react to the striking absence of the documentarian. Moyer uses the titular meme as an organizing principle, intermixing animations of it with footage of the interviewees, but other than the occasional titlecard explaining a term or marking the passage of time, the voice of the film is largely ceded to the young men. She trusts them to tell their own stories, providing a platform for sincere expression to individuals that too often hide behind a thin veil of irony. Though the fragmented structure can be disorienting at times, the camera captures the sadness and disillusionment at the heart of their nihilistic posturing in a way that is genuinely engaging.
However, for whatever truth the film uncovers, it also lies by omission. TFW No GF includes only cursory references to the darker elements of incel culture, including direct ties to multiple mass murders, that account for its overwhelmingly negative public image. I am not among those who believe this to signify a wholesale forgiveness of those elements— there are too many moments (lingering on a confederate ring here, an assault weapon arsenal there) that seem intended to activate the viewer’s concern for this to be the case. Perhaps Moyer felt no need to add to the chorus that only discusses the negative, or perhaps room afforded the subjects leaves little space for the fact that not all those who use memes to threaten violence or suicide are kidding.
Controversy was probably inevitable, given the subject matter, but it is also not entirely unwarranted in this case. TFW No GF has important things to say about the widespread alienation facing many of America’s young men. By no means should it be the only voice in the discussion that you listen to.