Whenever I miss a movie at one of my favorite film festivals, I’m eager to catch it later in the year. I don’t always love every movie but knowing it played there puts me back in the Austin or Park City vibe. King Kelly played SXSW this year, and it would have been one of the standout films of the festival for me.
Now, when I heard it was a movie shot entirely on cell phone cameras, my red flags automatically went up. That could turn Blair Witch-y really fast, but festivals are a place where we forgive limited production values and creative solutions. King Kelly works and I’ll get more into the cell phone device below.
Kelly (Louisa Krause) is an internet webcam girl. The film opens in an explicit webcam show she’s giving. Kelly films most of the movie with her cell phone, except when her best friend Jordan (Libby Woodridge) films with her own phone. Kelly makes extra money as a drug mule, so when her ex-boyfriend (Will Brill, best actor name ever!) steals their co-owned car, Kelly and Jordan have to chase him to recover the stash.
The plot is almost incidental. The central and most important point of King Kelly is the performance by Krause. Krause is captivating as the young seductress but the film doesn’t play the sex card lightly. It may be reaching a bit to claim it is a portrait of an entire generation, but there is a healthy chunk of teens whose entire life is a performance of some kind, if not for a webcam then for their own social media sharing or YouTube.
Kelly turns every moment into a provocative pose, with a pouty expression and tempting insinuation. Krause succeeds in the relentless play for viewers’ attention, and never lets you off the hook for falling for it. She may turn a birthday cake into a sexual prop, but you’re both engaged and exhausted by her constant performance. I know she’s dangerous but I want to see what she does next. Krause has got the volatile, entitled teen behavior down, but never writes Kelly off as a brat. There are lots of factors that made her this way: the access to an audience mixed with parental indifference and bad social influences.
Her age is ambiguous too. Her webcam profile says she’s 21, but she’d have to say that anyway. She still lives at home, which is not totally uncommon for 21-years-olds, and if she’s a teen, we never see her go to school. But then, the movie only covers a day or so, so maybe it’s Saturday, or it’s Summer break. She certainly exhibits teen narcissism and entitlement, again not limited to those under 20, but it’s enough to make you wonder if you’re watching a teenage sex worker, or just a young adult sex worker.
With a character like that, she could be in any kind of plot and be fascinating. The drugs are high enough stakes to motivate her to leave her house, but really she brought that on herself by getting involved in drug dealers and bad ex-boyfriends. We don’t see them in happier times, but one can imagine she did nothing to attract a more stable partner than she got.
What’s interesting about her quest is how it incorporates Kelly’s bag of tricks and brings some of her online life into the real world. I won’t spoil the specifics, but Kelly doesn’t stop performing no matter how serious her situation gets, nor who else may be around. You certainly sympathize with Jordan, though you wish she could see her potential to have better friends, and also with Kelly for relying on the same schtick in all aspects of her life. She could be more than a seductress, but since she’s never applied herself elsewhere we’ll never know.
The cell phone footage holds up at least as well as indie movies shot on lower end digital cameras. It’s basically found footage, but since the takes are long and the actors hold their phones pretty still it looks more like a formal production than the found footage gimmick movies. The cell phone is more of a device for Kelly to have her performance in her own hands, rather than an objective camera. For that reason alone it serves a more thematic purpose than most found footage movies.
I highly recommend King Kelly. You’ve absolutely got to see what Louisa Krause is doing. You’ve seen her before but this is her powerhouse vehicle. The movie is entertaining and thoughtful. I’m not going to overly hype it but it has a strong voice, from director Andrew Neel and screenwriter Mike Roberts, and these actors really embody it.
Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel