This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"I fucking hate the internet," says Chief Paterson, a cop in a small town with a big violence problem. Thousands of phones have been hacked, and conversation logs, text messages, camera rolls, and web search histories have been released into the public sphere. This leak—which kicks off the teen revenge movie Assassination Nation—sparks violent chaos, with the blame pinned on four teenage girls: Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse).
Opening with trigger warnings spelled out in huge text—"blood," "homophobia," "transphobia," "racism," and "murder," among them—the film challenges viewers to look out for each and every shocking element amid the scatter-gun pop culture references and split-screens of Instagram Stories and Snapchats. The dialogue is instantly quotable: "This is why every guy I meet on Tinder wants to choke me on our first date" or "Men who don't eat pussy in this day and age are straight up sociopathic" provide the humor that offsets the gory violence of the film's entwined morality tales.
What Assassination Nation most wants to encourage, it seems, is empathy: While Lily is quick to see other people's points of view, for instance, Bex is an uncompromising left-wing reactionist ("You're a bitch; I'm a feminist") ready to shoot people down, and this stance often comes off as misguided.
The film—chronicling, as it does, the violent fallout from a mass leak—involves the use of a lot of guns, a topic many left-leaning people understandably aren't quick to defend or empathize with in the real world. "Going down to the South, to Louisiana, and being trained on a gun range there, I definitely brought my preconceptions and prejudices about gun use," star Hari Nef tells me. "I grew up in the north-east, in a liberal environment. I was very much point-blank anti-guns and didn't really get a sense for the nuances or realities of people who didn't agree with me."
It was only when she was shooting the guns (and after she watched Big Little Lies, another woman-led story about responses to male violence) that "I understood why these little pieces of metal were so important to so many people, especially people who felt vulnerable," she explains. While Nef finds it hard to understand the motives of gun lobbyists, she gets those of "a woman who lives alone in a rural area with her kids, or a person of color who lives in the South. I understand why these things make people feel safe, and are able to assuage aspects of people's trauma."
Nef—who studied drama and theater at Columbia University, has modeled for L'Oreal and Hugo Boss, and can be seen in both Amazon Prime’s Transparent and the upcoming Robert Mapplethorpe biopic—is as well-known for being sharp and funny online as she is for her professional work.
When asked about the second lesson from the film—taking context into account, especially with stuff you see online—Nef says, "I have been the subject of outsized passionate praise on the internet and I have been the subject of outsized passionate vitriol on the internet." In both situations, she continues, "I don't think those people are thinking of me as a person; they’re thinking of me more as an avatar, and that's an amalgamation of quotations, photos, tweets, or even ideas that are just associated with me that I didn't necessarily put there."
While she appreciates the good stuff, detaching from other people's projections took work. "It took me a while to depersonalize those extreme actions, to not feel extreme joy at the positive ones and not to feel extreme sadness at the negative ones," she says, adding that she is keenly aware that the worst effects of internet appreciation and criticism—the serious stuff of Assassination Nation—aren't only felt by famous sorts like her, but by everyday people, like those in the film.
"This isn't a public figure thing, it's something that we all deal with as people who exist on the internet," she says. "We all have brands, we all have avatars, and they are often conflated with who we are as people. Who exactly are they praising, what exactly are they praising, who exactly do they think I am?"
Assassination Nation slips comfortably into the teenage coming-of-age genre. It's as surreal as Popular, hyper-sexed like Cruel Intentions, rowdy like Spring Breakers and, just like American Honey, it uses music—bluesy, and featuring Billie Eilish, K Flay, and Barns Courtney—to craft a sense of national teen identity.
The film is also a technological horror in the vein of Black Mirror. The important difference, though, is Levinson’s acknowledgment that it's not tech that corrupts us, but people. Like a careering ride around on the dodgems, we're all bound to knock into each other with a hard, bruising jolt; it's just that tech makes the ride that much faster, and the space to roam free that much smaller.
This is just one point in a film full of fables, which seems to lack a coherent message throughout. What's the overarching meaning for Nef? "I think the film's critique of righteousness and its centering of empathy—how healing and redeeming empathy can be for people who are living in a hostile environment—that's what resonates for me," she says.
Mind you, she sees no reason why ethics should be the biggest take-home from what is also a spirited, self-aware, and satirical film. "It's a fun, electric, engaging movie-going experience," says Nef. "I want girls to go with other girls to the 10 PM screening and yell at the screen and stomp around and smoke their Juuls in the back row, and just have fun. I'm like, yes, it is serious, but I don't think we can lose the sheer popcorn-crunching entertainment value of this film."
As critic Amanda Hess wrote in her New York Times review of Ocean’s 8, there’s a particular pressure on women-led films, that "they have to do everything the men did, except backward, and with ideals," and Nef can relate: "There's this impossible double standard for female-led things. If it's leaning too far into the razzle-dazzle and the action, it feels like people would rather watch men do this. If it's too far in the other direction, too impressionistic or too atmospheric and prestigious, it gets dismissed as niche and doesn't find its audience."
To her, this film has both "the guns, girls, and explosions" and the "gritty high school coming of age story."
The result is somewhat messy. Nef is aware of feminist critiques tugging at the loose ends of Assassination Nation's feminism (is it really that woke to see women being pilloried, tortured, and beaten up? Why is Bella Thorne's hideous character not given any of the nuance the male villains are?), but she's also aware that other critics have said "this isn't boisterous or flashy enough."
Nef wants the film to spark a conversation, and it surely will. Assassination Nation is a hi-tempo, geo-tagged journey through the hellscape of growing up in 2018 with the freedom of a mobile phone and the burden of oppression. Though it's perhaps overly littered with analogy, its message becomes clear by its end, in an earnest, raging monologue built for the Tumblr age. It's about the protection of good women and aggression against fallen women, and the tiny, whisper-thin line between being one of those women and the other. It's about call-out culture becoming just as obscene as any other bigotry when it's filtered through the universal lens of power.
In summary, I hate the fucking internet.
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