Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Joshua Minsoo Kim Film

TikTok, Boom — Shalini Kantayya

January 24, 2022

Documenting the most downloaded phone app of all time is a daunting task. Director Shalini Kantayya is aware of such a prospect; right at the beginning of her documentary TikTok, Boom., we hear that “it’s a cybersecurity story, it’s an algorithm story, it’s a bias story, it’s a geopolitical story.” One of the first images we see is of popular influencer Charli D’Amelio dancing with a darker skin complexion, edited as if to hint at how her meteoric rise is due to dances made by Black choreographers. Such provocation ends up being mere suggestion, though, as this notion isn’t elaborated upon at length. This, then, is the problem of Kantayya’s documentary: There are far too many ideas tackled, and all have been written about countless times — including by one of the film’s talking heads, culture writer Taylor Lorenz — and so watching this feels like speed-reading any dozen articles about the app from the past few years.

It’s also hard to determine who this film is for, exactly. Many viewers who are interested in watching are likely familiar with TikTok already, but many of the points expressed have gone viral across social media, including on the app itself. Those completely unaware of its many facets and narratives, however, would be better off finding alternative info-dump prospects as the doc is too scattershot to be much compelling. It’s also far less thrilling than using the app itself, making zero attempts to mirror its addictive endless stream of content, the importance of its popularity to the wide acceptance of vertical videos, or mirroring the surreal experience of finding one’s For You Page tweaked in real time.

One of Kantayya’s clear strategies with TikTok, Boom. is to focus on content creators. We learn about Feroza Aziz, Deja Foxx, and Spencer X. The former two have humanitarian interests, while the latter is a beatboxer whose success has led to a collaboration with Jason Derulo. Stories of acceptance, community, and the terror of always being perceived — especially when young — are familiar to the point of banality in 2022, but more than just being commonplace, their respective lives are uninteresting here because Kantayya rarely allows their stories to breathe, to depict them beyond straightforward interviews and previously made TikTok videos. When we hear about Deja Foxx’s anxiety or how Trump’s proposed banning of TikTok would leave Spencer X without a career, such tragedies are treated with the same blandness as overarching points regarding China’s increasing tech dominance in America, predatory users, and childhood fame.

What results is a film that’s consistently shallow. There are even points where the film leans toward Sinophobia, doing little to question the supposed “horrors” of Americans needing to adjust to Chinese cultural customs. While censorship is touched upon, everything present is handled with little nuance, and the film’s inability to tackle such complex topics is obvious when we see Deja Foxx’s work on Kamala Harris’s TikToks — there’s a noticeable myopia here. At one point, when we hear that recommendation systems, something inherent to TikTok’s algorithmic foundation, are making decisions for generations of people, such consternation is met with a shot of teenagers in a living room, staring at their phones — safe to say, it’s not the most harrowing stuff.

The film’s final passages sum up its inarticulate, inelegant nature. The emotional climax arrives with moody synths as Spencer X starts to cry and confesses, “Being a beatboxer, it was so hard for me to be accepted.” Such a statement feels inert after the more distressing realities of the other influencers, but even worse is that it feels like Kantayya is willing as many emotional beats as possible. After this, and learning of Spencer X’s success, we learn of the LOG OFF movement, which is at direct odds with the fact that TikTok led to these influencers’ success in the first place — the struggle between churning out content and enjoying one’s career is touched upon earlier, but has by this point disappeared. “TikTok won,” is the anticlimactic revelation at the end of TikTok, Boom. This was, of course, obvious since the beginning of the film, and points to how much of Kantayya’s documentary is dead on arrival.

Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1.