Look at Me is an entertaining Rorschach test, a declaration and a plea to study the evidence of a spectacular, troubled life.
It begins with a familiar line of inquiry: can we possibly separate the beloved art from the problematic artist? It’s expected given Sabaah Folayan’s subject in her newest documentary: the late musical wunderkind XXXTentacion, born Jahseh Onfroy. In a snippet from an unreleased interview, the South Florida artist considers the question before providing his interpretation of what can be read as the film’s central line of argument. The “artist” is a commodifiable extension of a person, that person being imperfect and essential to any richer understanding of what roils within the art. Folayan sets out to present a holistic portrait of the boy behind the stage name, delivering a subtly multifaceted effort equal parts tragedy and elegy.
Chief among the film’s achievements is its bracing intimacy. Immediately, Folayan bombards the viewer with family photographs and home videos. Grainy cellphone recordings and Instagram stories bleed into backstage footage and family huddles, the distinction between private and public intentionally obscured. Scenes from XXXTentacion’s raucous rap concerts are shot almost guerilla style, entrenched in the mayhem and registering every shout, bang, kick, and roar. Relatives, associates, ex-lovers, even Onfroy himself receive ample space to open up across interviews, Onfroy’s style of communication best described as the eerily poignant musings of a philosopher-delinquent. Yet his perspective proves supplemental at best. Folayan never lets his star power blind us to the reality of his issues. His words are additional testimony catalogued for the curious case of Jahseh Onfroy, a young man dually acquainted with trauma as both an inheritor and dispenser of it. Look at Me shouldn’t be accused of either fawning worship or hypercritical character assassination. It’s equally sincere in its desire to capture the passion of the fans, the pandemonium of the music festivals, and the pain in every busted and bloodied face. At times the film can adopt a bit of a true-crime aesthetic, the police reports and printed depositions detailing Onfroy’s mania and manipulations orchestrated with the typical hyperreal stylings. The mood swings from hype to horror to hype again, a mirror for the film’s infamously mercurial subject. In less deft hands the result would have been a messier, unfocused ambivalence; Folayan accomplishes a sensitive nuance while avoiding sanctimony. The ugly lows of Onfroy’s mismanaged anger and pain prove to be part and parcel of his dizzying ascension to superstardom. It’s a balance that’s the recipe for compelling viewing, the requisite material for rendering any final verdict.
Folayan’s attention to the structures confining vulnerable Black youth lends Look at Me a substantive potency. Inconsistent emotional support and an unstable home life contributed to Onfroy’s early loneliness and depression, compounded by a childhood diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Onfroy speaks on being accustomed to violently protecting his mother from partners, aligning violence with a sense of masculine duty particularly resonant with some Black men. His adolescent legal issues — gun possession, drug dealing, home invasions — spawn from a seeming blend of understimulation and desperation. His stints in the carceral system solidify his misfit status, one that would become commercially viable for record labels and vicariously liberating for his expanding fan base. As Bass Santana, a fellow member of the rap collective Members Only, posits, “All these people wanna see is us destroy each other. That’s what they pay for… [and so] we will become gladiators.” All these factors complicate Look at Me’s moral calculus, begging the question of what redemption can look like — assuming the possibility exists — for a disturbed saint, a sonically ambitious prince of darkness in a world where darkness sells. Folayan fashions a pop cultural dialectic of sorts, free from any stuffy philosophical pretensions. It’s left to viewers to reconcile their thoughts and feelings when confronted with juxtaposing extremes. Onfroy’s tenderness and terror are both laid bare. The pity and fear he elicits from his inner circle when engaged in violent delights are pit against the spellbound devotion from fans who could consume his image from a safe distance. How does the seductive vacancy behind his eyes in his iconic mugshot square with the beautifully boyish ebullience seen during simpler times?
Look at Me, taking its title from the breakthrough XXXTentacion single, is an entertaining Rorschach test, a declaration and a plea to study the evidence of a spectacular, troubled life. Folayan brushes up against numerous debates, all the while crafting a warped visual mood and soundscape that infuses the drama with a charged rawness. That boundary between anti-hero and anti-villain is made frustratingly, fascinatingly fluid.
You can stream Sabaah Folayan’s Look at Me: XXXTentacion on Hulu beginning on May 26.