SXSW: “TFW No GF” Is a Surface-Level Look at Internet Trolls

TFW No GF TFW No GF (SXSW 2020)

Alex Lee Moyer’s documentary on the rise of incels doesn’t quite unlock what makes them so angry and dissatisfied.

In case you hadn’t heard, dudes can be toxic on the Internet. A number of these men identify as incels (involuntarily celibate) and proceed to spend their days on websites like 4Chan or Twitter while harboring deep-seated resentment towards women. About five men (including one who goes by the name Kantbot and another known as Charles), who either see themselves as incels or adjacent to that community, are the center of the documentary TFW No GF. The title refers to the phrase “That Feeling When No Girlfriend”, which is meant to exemplify the loneliness many of these young men experience. 

Director Alex Lee Moyer’s doc is a stripped-down exploration of these dudes, one that shrinks down to the focus to just extended interviews with the central subjects. No interviews are to be found with their relatives, academic experts or anyone else. These five men see themselves as so isolated from American society that they can only turn to online trollery. As such, Moyer structures TFW No GF to reflect that insular worldview. It’s one of a number of subtle touches meant to place the viewer right into the mindset of people like Kantbot or Charles.

Unfortunately, going this direction has its fair share of limitations. Chief among those drawbacks is that the perspectives of these five figures just aren’t interesting enough to function as the sole focus of a feature-length movie. Once you hear one of these guys talk for a prolonged period of time, you’ve basically heard them all. Rambling posing as faux-intellectualism, blatant sexism, the occasional violent comment like expressing sympathy for mass shooters. You could go into any random Twitter thread or message board and find this sort of dialogue. 

It’s not exactly a revelatory development that this kind of worldview runs rampant on the Internet. Meanwhile, the explorations of how loneliness & depression inform their actions little more than surface-level.

These five men see themselves as so isolated from American society that they can only turn to online trollery.

So what else does TFW No GF offer? Unfortunately, not as much as it should, thanks to its isolating focus on repetitive anecdotes from incels. By keeping the scope so narrow, there’s really nothing new to be gleaned. To boot, Moyer’s filmmaking is erratic, especially in terms of the camerawork and lighting. 

While most scenes are easily visible, others (particularly nighttime interviews with an incel residing in El Paso, Texas) are so murkily lit that it’s difficult to figure out who’s speaking and when. That is, of course, except for one flashy moment where the camera spins around and around one of the interview subjects sitting in a parking lot. It’s an oddly grandiose moment that sticks out like a sore thumb amid the otherwise grounded camerawork.

There are still parts of the production worth commending. Instead of using intrusive pieces of editing or overly obvious music cues to signal that something is askew, she just lets the responses or actions from her interviewees haunt all on their own. That kind of chilling aesthetic can’t carry the entirety of TFW No GF, but it does lead to a handful of memorably unnerving scenes.

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