The term “parasocial relationship” is one that is not thrown around much. If I was to approach some random person on the street and ask them the definition, chances are I wouldn’t walk away with the right answer. Despite its ambiguity, it’s a concept that most of us have experienced through out our lives. A parasocial relationship is one sided, where one person is spends emotional energy, time, interest, money etc. on someone who has one idea they exist. Think of your favorite actor, musician, or comedian. Everyone one has had that one celebrity in their lives that they follow their career, seem to know everything about, or will spend a large amount of time and effort investing in, yet to them you just a fan. But now, as social media rises and the creator has access to see comments, likes and follows, the line where the between the one-sided and two-sided relationship starts to get more blurred.
This is where Polish filmmaker Magnus von Horn’s Sweat comes in. The new film takes the idea of the parasocial relationship and applies to the social media fitness influencer. We follow Sylwia (Magdalena Koleśnik), a thin, blonde up and coming wellness guru hell bent on spreading good vibes and showing her truest self to her 600,000 instagram followers. After she posts a video of herself breaking down, more and more people start to hound her online and in real life. Her already established relationships with her mother and friends run from distant to frosty and her only means of true human connection is with her followers. Over the course of three days leading up to her first morning show appearance and an encounter with a stalker, Sylwia examines her own relationship to social media and to her perceived persona.
Instead of viewing Sylwia with a critical eye, one that would question why she would be exposing her emotional self for all to see, von Horn is completely sympathetic to Sylwia’s story. To borrow a phrase from Bo Burnham, von Horn seamlessly syncs audiences heartbeat to Sylwia’s. Burnham wrote and directed Eigth Grade, a film that also examines the realities of social media and a piece Sweat was conincidentally compared to.
Von Horn knows exactly when to throw in a closeup verses a wide shot, when to use a handheld and when to use a mounted camera. The effect brings the audience in and pushes them back to the uncomfortable, completely on von Horn’s whim. Only his second feature, his control over Sweat’s visual emotional arc is exquisite. Shots that feel claustrophobic and intrusive at the beginning feel like a lifeline by the film’s end as we are stripped from our own facades along with Sylwia.
Sweat is really a two hander between von Horn and star Magdalena Koleśnik. Able to capture nuance in the character’s quiet moments and still be a loud and boisterous presence is challenging. Koleśnik has to create a character likeable enough to have such a large following but also naive, vulnerable and desperate enough to realize that she has a parasocial relationship with her own audience.
The film’s final act feels rushed and the impact of one major ending event is lost in translation. But what Sweat does really well is to turn the mirror back on us not in a Black Mirror dystopian way, not in a gimmicky satire like the recently released Mainstream, but in a “Sylwia could be any of us” kind of way.
Sweat is available in select theaters and coming to the independent movie app Mubi soon. Watch the trailer below. You can catch our interview with director Magnus von Horn and Magdalena Koleśnik here.