In King Kelly, Louisa Krause plays a very familiar figure of digital-age alienation. She’s that young woman so insecure about herself, so devoid of prospects that go beyond the body, she’s always performing some caricatural version of femininity, begging for anybody’s gaze. King Kelly is her nom de guerre for making some cash stripping and masturbating in front of her webcam in the bedroom of her parents’ suburban home. And while she constantly films her life (the movie employs the very annoying faux found-footage aesthetic), she’d likely be posing even if she weren’t being digitally captured, such is her internalized demand to feel watched.
That’s the 21st-century hysteric, the kind of obnoxious white chick who speaks like a cartooned Valley Girl, uses terms such as “that’s gay,” is often drunk or high, too self-consumed to differentiate between Sikhs and terrorists, and sees drama where there isn’t any—just so she can overreact to it. Kelly is also a particularly American product of privilege, a girl whose material needs are guaranteed, but whose emotional knots, and all the things that aren’t easily visible, are never acknowledged. Her desperate attempts to make her body perfectly visible at all times obviously denounce her need to make something else, something less desirable, noticeable.
Too bad the film feels, much like its protagonist’s persona, fake. It isn’t interested in exploring the nuances of her character, her predicaments, or her contradictions. It decides very early on, as part of its premise, to reduce her to a one-dimensional narcissist. It then exposes her need for validation in the most literal ways, as when Kelly reads the comments on her erotic video (“LAME,” “epic slut,” and “Kelly, it’s called weight watchers”) and sheds a tear, then promptly binges on several cheeseburgers. There’s no gravitas, no seriousness. It’s a gimmick, an affectation. Unlike Sean Baker’s recent Starlet, another film about a girl’s surrendering to complete objectification as a strategy for survival, King Kelly never gives its main character a chance to go beyond what we expect her to be. Kelly is so high on her ceaseless need to perform, she’s never allowed to become something other than a buzzing piñata, spinning out of control around its own axis, waiting for us to punish her—as though we weren’t just as invested and implicated in her survival strategies as she is.