Social Animals, the feature-length debut from documentary director Jonathan Ignatius Green, stars three kids: self-taught New York street photographer Humza Deas, dancer and aspiring fashion brand mogul Kaylyn Slevin, and Ohio high school student Emma Crockett, who stands in for the everyman teen. They talk about their lives, which means they talk about Instagram — how it’s helped them, how it’s harmed them, what the rules are, what people can use it for, why they might care.
That’s it! It starts with a simple, unpretentious concept, and the result is a nuanced and judgment-free look at how life works for kids in the digital age.
To lay out the story of a self-made artist, Green shows Deas sitting on a twin-sized bed while subway cars rattle past his bedroom. Two Canon cameras on the windowsill are the only notable objects in the room. To illuminate Slevin’s business instincts, he shows her smiling politely and lightly rolling her eyes while her father — who owns multiple car dealerships — debones a chicken and dispenses vague platitudes about the key to success. Crockett lies on a trampoline, rides a dirt bike, and sits in a nondescript classroom, calmly presenting the facts of how she was harassed and hurt.
The film premiered at the SXSW film festival this week, so I caught up with Green after a screening to hear more about how Social Animals came together, why he deleted all the academic experts from the film, and what he hopes viewers learn from the three teens he trusted to tell this story.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why were you interested in this subject?How did you start making this film?
We have a marketing agency, and we do a lot of work with brands. When Instagram came out six and a half years ago or so, we were kind of early into the space to help brands get on the platform. That was before you could just buy ads. We learned a lot about the platform and started working with influencers, and most of them were self-made photographers. We kind of got interested in “Maybe we could make a film about all these people who weren’t photographers before,” and now, because of this platform and the democratization of audience, they’ve been able to have careers they otherwise wouldn’t have had. We shot most of that documentary, but then we were in the edit room, and I was like, “This is maybe more of a web series than a movie.” It was portraits of all these people from all over the world, [but] what I was more interested in was the bigger impact of social media and the interpersonal impact.
We kind of pivoted to do it about Instagram and teenagers. Part of that was because we interviewed along the way, Philippe Kahn, this inventor who’s credited with inventing the modern cameraphone, and that happened in 1997. And so then we narrowed our focus to “What if our film is about people who were born after 1997?” They’ve been born into a world that only knows the rapid capture and sharing of images. It’s part of their everyday social experience. And, obviously, the teenage landscape is ripe for interpersonal conflict and coming-of-age narrative.
How did you decide on the three people to focus on?
We had already started filming the photography movie with Demid [Lebedev], so we knew Humza through him. And he’d been in the news, he’d been in New York magazine. The other two, we cast new. We were looking specifically for these different character buckets, Kaylyn kind of represented a young starlet on Instagram. We met her actually through a casting director, who was like ,“Oh, my son goes to school with this girl Kaylyn. She has like half a million followers.” And then we met her, and she was really affable and open to the idea. I mean, her next-door neighbor is Khloe Kardashian, and she’s the next generation of that sensibility of starlet. To be so young and to be that popular was just really fascinating to me.
And Emma came about through friends of friends. We’d put an APB out to our network of family and friends and said, “Hey, we’re looking for a teenager who’s gone through something really difficult, either because of or on social media.” We wanted a Midwest story to balance our East Coast / West Coast thing. We got connected with this counselor who works with teenagers in Ohio, and we were telling him what we were looking for, and he was like, “This is gonna sound kind of weird, but actually you’re describing my daughter.” I called her, and one of our writers called her, and she was just so lovely. Her episode, her traumatic moment, had happened about two and a half months before that phone call. It was still fresh, but you could tell she was also on the other side of it a bit. She was just super open about her story, and you could tell this was a really smart young woman who’s willing to share.
I was really struck by how self-possessed and articulate she was about the whole experience. People often think teenagers are acting in an irrational way on these platforms, but they can usually explain themselves very clearly.
Yeah, these are human beings forming into adults that are very sophisticated.
I’m curious if there’s anything that really surprised you during the making of the movie.
I think just the level of sophistication. Kaylyn, although she’s on the one hand very innocent and kind of naive, she clearly knows what she’s doing. I think she’s more strategic than she lets on. Because of the generation and the era that we’re in, I mean, we work with marketing executives all the time, and these kids are speaking in this brand vocabulary, it’s just now, it’s applied to the self. And that’s a really interesting thing, that they just speak almost natively, not just a digital language, but a marketing language. They’re always branding and curating themselves. That’s something I had as a presupposition going in, but it became very literal in interviewing all these people.
It’s kind of unnerving. But I think a lot of adults view it as narcissism. Where to me, it’s more like, these teenagers have been handed a broken economy. Going to college doesn’t guarantee you a job, so if you can make this work for you, good for you. You haven’t been given a lot of options.
I interviewed a lot of experts, and then in the edit room, I decided I didn’t want to make that movie, where a bunch of talking-head academics explain why kids are doing things. Because the kids are so much more interesting. And so I just got rid of them. But in the process, it kind of became my research, to interview them and think more critically than I was about this stuff. I interviewed [Dr. Megan Moreno] from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she’s a very published, known academic in the space. Whenever I would use this type of alarmist language, being like, “These kids are doing this and this and this,” she’d be like, “Yeah, that’s all normal, formative behavior for someone that age. It’s just that they’re doing it online.”
Like, when a girl or a guy stands in front of the mirror and gets ready for an hour before they go out to that party at the roller rink in the ‘80s, they’re still experimenting with their identity, and they’re putting themselves out there and seeing what comes back, and that’s a very natural thing. It’s just happening at a faster pace. She was like, “What are you worried about?” It was a refreshing perspective, but you need both. It’s not all or nothing. Have you heard of Sherry Turkle? She wrote that book Alone Together, and she’s the head of the Initiative on Technology and Self at MIT. She’s hugely influential for me. She doesn’t speak in alarmist ways, she’s just like, “Does this affect empathy?” You know, when we talk through screens, we’re not dehumanized, but we’re disembodied. That actually is kind of alarming.
Was that the most unsettling part of it for you?
I think Emma said it better than I could. She says, “They would never say these things to my face, but because they could say it through a screen they just did.” She has the line that it kind of became a game for everyone. I think that’s so interesting. We do all these things on our phones, and the phone equalizes experiences, so I’m playing a game and then I flip over and I’m on social media, and you can see how those lines get blurred. It’s pretty confusing. That’s why I didn’t try to make like a Michael Moore, “Hey, think this way” type of movie. I just wanted to say, “Hey, this is complicated, let’s just look at it.” Hopefully that spurs on thoughtful, reflective conversations. Not that we don’t have that already, but I want to be a part of helping nourish that.
I don’t want talking heads to do the work, I just want the teenagers to do the work and say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on.” And the audience has to deal with that and think about that.
Watching Kaylyn’s part, I was very nervous about the perception other people in the room had of her. There’s still a bad attitude about young women who are making careers on Instagram. The assumption is that they’re shallow, they’re vapid, whatever.
She’s a polarizing character. I have friends that you would think would immediately dismiss her and say she’s what you just described. But they’ve actually come to me and been like, “She’s my favorite character.” Yeah, she’s only 15 years old. She’s working her butt off. She’s talented as a dancer. She’s already making something of herself. That’s great. And then the other side is people who think she’s obnoxious, and she represents this materialistic obsession we have in our culture, and she’s in this bubble, etc. She’s very polarizing. She definitely has the least emotional arc in the film, too. She doesn’t learn a ton in the film. That was hard for me as a storyteller because I’m trying to puncture her perfectly manicured facade. To be honest, she hasn’t gone through enough in her life yet to have these big reflective moments. But she will. Everyone does. She’s just not there yet.
What kind of movies do you want to make after Social Animals?
I’ve always had a fascination with bioethics and technoethics. There’s a robust narrative opportunity around this future that we’re moving so quickly into. I studied philosophy and literature, and I have an interest in making sure the conversations around our humanity are robust and stay intact even as we become more immersed in this onslaught of cyberborg-ish stuff. I interviewed [Amber Case]. She did a TED Talk a while back that caught fire. She considers herself a cyborg anthropologist, and her dissertation was about the smartphone — because the textbook definition of cyborg is that you have some type of machinery connected to your body that extends your natural ability. And so she’s like, well the smartphone is that for the brain. It’s always in our pockets, and with wearables, it’s connected to our bodies.
We’re moving into this, not post-human, but enhanced human era. We need to keep these conversations happening so we don’t lose ourselves.