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“The Social Dilemma” Presents Interesting Questions In A Puzzling Manner

It’s no secret that social media has left an indelible mark on the world. Whether it’s more of a positive or a negative mark depends on who you are and how you view its impact. The new documentary, The Social Dilemma, certainly is of the opinion that it’s doing major damage to the world, and in particular, to the youth of the world. In fact, it’s probably more of a fact than an opinion. However, while the Netflix release does make this case, it does so in a rather frustrating and puzzling manner that robs it of most of its effectiveness. Now available on the streaming giant, it’s intriguing, but an ultimately disappointing experience.

The documentary is an unusual mix of investigative journalism, expose, and also narrative drama. The subject matter is, of course, the reliance on social media that people of all walks of life have developed in recent years. Not only is that examined psychologically, but Silicon Valley insiders take part, explaining just how and why certain decisions were made. The addictive nature of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and such, it’s all there, given an ominous streak. Not only are whistleblowers and those in the know giving their two cents, but a recurring thread has the elements being discussed shown in narrative vignettes, putting fictional faces and names to the events depicted. It’s all designed to make you think twice before you like, post, or tweet. Jeff Orlowski directs and co-writes, with the other writers on the flick being Davis Coombe (who also edits) and Vickie Curtis. For the narrative bits, Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, and Vincent Kartheiser lead the cast. Mark A. Crawford contributes an ominous score, while the cinematography is by the duo of John Behrens and Jonathan Pope.

What really hurts this doc is the bizarre insistence on dramatized footage. For some reason, filmmaker Jeff Orlowski keeps switching from his talking head and stock footage documentary format to something almost resembling a narrative feature. Now, Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, and Vincent Kartheiser (among others) are fine, but it’s a strange choice that absolutely does not work. It stops the doc dead in its tracks. Orlowski’s direction can’t manage to make it work, while the screenplay he penned with Davis Coombe and Vickie Curtis never makes a compelling case for this inclusion. Unfortunately, it ends up being a fatal flaw here, as the whole project becomes too easy to dismiss or shrug off because of it.

The Social Dilemma will play differently to those who have no clue about what social media is up to, as opposed to those already in the know. If this is all news to you, it’s going to be disturbing, sobering, and perhaps even make you deactivate an account or two. If it’s old news, however, it may come off as repetitive. Now, that could possibly be why the dramatizations are there, but even with vaguely recognizable folk like Gisondo, Hayward, and Kartheiser, it comes off as a gimmick. Sometimes, a documentary benefits from a gimmick. This particular one, however, does not.

Available to watch now on Netflix, The Social Dilemma wants to educate folks about what our world’s current reliance on social media really means. It’s an admirable subject, one that deserves a more consistent treatment than this. I seem to be in the minority, so perhaps it’s only myself who was bugged by the narrative drama poking its way into the doc? Either be a documentary or be a drama. The attempt to do both winds up making neither particularly effective. Alas.

The Social Dilemma is available to stream right now on Netflix.

(Photos courtesy of Netflix)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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