Girl Gang had its North American premiere at this year’s HotDocs Film Festival. In a world where teenagers especially become internet famous overnight, it’s a topical and important story to tell. In a world where so many of us are connected at all times through technology, it’s always worth considering the consequences of this connection, and if it’s even genuine. Deeply uncomfortable, yet always heartfelt, Girl Gang is the wake-up call our society needs at this moment.
Girl Gang is truly a modern-day fairytale that has gone horribly awry. 14-year-old Leonie is a teenaged influencer from Germany, with a worldwide following. Through the power of social media, she’s harnessed this influence to make a career as a teenager. Her influence over others is clear, especially seen through the perspective of her fans who get to meet her in person. She provokes a Beatlemania-like reaction everywhere she goes.
It’s far from a glamorous life, however. The documentary is structured so that we see Leonie’s life from the perspective of everyone except…Leonie herself. It’s an incredibly effective way to communicate the loss of power and agency that comes with this fame. One can hardly watch even this brief glimpse into Leonie’s life and think that it’s any kind of enviable. While greatness or talent (along with more than a little bit of luck) might be obvious at this young of an age, acting on it definitely comes at the price of living anything close to a normal life.
The entire documentary is also a meditation on the nature of parasocial relationships that are created through social media. The fact that the filmmakers chose to highlight one fan specifically was a fascinating look into how these sorts of fandoms actually play out in day-to-day life. This fan is clearly impacted by her favorite influencer on a daily basis. She starts a fan account, and travels to see her. The fact that this relationship is one of the most real in her life is true of so many people in our modern world. For so many, influencers are more than just people who tell us what to buy or how to dress and act. They’re a distraction from real life problems and they seem so much closer to the average fan than they actually are.
Leonie’s parents as her managers is often such a sad dynamic. There’s something to be said for the fact that regardless of the medium, parents can always find a way to benefit from their kids. It’s too bad the documentary didn’t further explore her parents’ contexts. They both grew up in East Germany. Perhaps this made them more susceptible to the rages of capitalism that has created so much of the modern social media landscape. Leonie’s parents are never presented as worthy of judgement, however, and that’s a smart thing. It’s clear that the path to exploiting one’s own children is quite a short one.
Girl Gang hits viewers with a message perhaps none of us want to hear. The instantaneous access to influencers comes at a cost, to them and maybe society as a whole. As uncomfortable of a watch as it can sometimes be, this is a necessary story to tell at this moment. At best, it will hopefully prompt parents and caregivers of children in particular to have the discussion that the internet often presents a distorted version of reality.
Girl Gang premieres in North America at the HotDocs Film Festival May 1, 2022.