Unfriended (2015), Friend Request (2017), and the Value of Committing to Your Gimmick

The recent German horror import Friend Request was always going to suffer unfavorable comparisons to its found footage American predecessor, Unfriended. Not only was the film originally titled Unfriend in its German release, but it also follows a plot about a group of morally flawed teens who are hunted through social media from beyond the grave by the vengeful ghost of a peer they bullied into suicide, just like in Unfriended. Although it generally has been met with shitty reviews and an ocean of eyerolls, I quite enjoyed Friend Request as a modern slice of digital schlock. It’s in so many ways a conventional horror film that just happens to graft itself onto themes of social media-era technophobia, but those are two aesthetics I generally have a fun time with, so the proposition of that formula isn’t such a raw deal for me. The film’s comparisons to Unfriended, the Citizen Kane of its micro-genre, did the film no favors, however. By stripping Unfriended of its defining found footage gimmick & applying its same story to a more formulaic horror aesthetic, Friend Request illustrates just how silly & ineffective that Blumhouse-produced modern classic could have been if mishandled. You can’t fully appreciate the tonal miracle of Unfriended‘s social media horror achievements until you see the film cheapened by Friend Request, which wasn’t anywhere nearly as committed to their shared gimmick.

The thing I love most about social media horror & thrillers of the 2010s is the way they document the mundane details of what modern communication actually looks like. Unfriended‘s structure as an 80 minute “real time” conversation via Skype, framed from the POV of the Final Girl’s laptop, could not be a more perfect vessel for that kind of internet-age time capsule. An unseen laptop operator clicks from program to program (Facebook, Skype, music players, meme generators, creepypasta forums, Chat Roulette, etc.), simulating the exact experience of communicating in a groupchat circa 2014 (give or take a murderous ghost). Friend Request is much looser in its social media documentation. Before its various kill scenes start bloodying up the screen, the film does pay a lot of attention to what scrolling through a “Facebook” timeline looks like (it’s actually a generic knockoff of Facebook, but the effect is the same). The plot is advanced through timeline-scrolling montage, with attention paid to mundane functions like cover photos, “liking,” “friending,” etc. When the killer Facebook ghost starts tormenting her main victim with video posts of their friends’ suicides, the film also lingers on details like error messages, deleting posts, disabling accounts, etc. The traditional ghost story narrative structure of the film (as opposed to Unfriended‘s found footage structure) prevents it from capturing too much of the 2010s social media zeitgeist past that, though, as only a few stray details can make it to the screen between kills.

Fully committing to the social media gimmick does more to distinguish Unfriended from Friend Request than just in terms of memorable novelty & capturing a cultural time capsule; it also makes for a genuinely eerie movie-watching experience for the audience. Watching a story unfold on a laptop screen feels real to our own experience browsing the internet (whether or not we’re idiot teen bullies who deserve to be murdered by a vengeful ghost). This verisimilitude extends to the frustration of pop-up ads, lagging, and desire to control the mouse cursor ourselves in a way that builds genuine tension between each supernatural kill. Stripped of that gimmick, Friend Request struggles to find ways to make the 2010s social media experience scary. Instead, it looks to generic, haunted house-setting horror movie scares to build that tension, constructing its kills around the mirrors, baby doll parts, woodland settings, and swarming bugs we’ve seen so many times before. Without that tension, the movie’s technophobic scares amount to something much sillier than what the (playful, but effective) kills that Unfriended achieves. When the Facebook ghost is revealed to be employing “demonic” code that transcends our 1’s & 0’s or when the laptops themselves are designated as being evil, dark magic objects that must be destroyed, the film can only be appreciated as a goof. Thankfully, it knows how silly it’s being and makes room for lines like “Unfriend the dead bitch!” in its porn-tier dialogue.

Friend Request isn’t completely devoid of fresh contributions to the social media horror genre. Its criticism of the way we curate the image of our lives & are fake-polite to strangers for attention online isn’t anything new, but I did find some fascinating detail in the way it overlaid images of characters’ faces in their device screens along with their timeline scrolls, as well as the way it made the concept of having absolutely zero friends on an outline platform seem eerie & bizarre. Mostly, though, the film is fun as a campy, internet-age lark and an illustration of just how well-mannered Unfriended‘s own social media horror aesthetic is handled. Unfriended‘s full commitment to its found footage social media gimmick is more impressive in terms of craft, more useful in terms of cultural documentation, and more effective in terms of delivering traditional horror scares through fresh, innovative devices. I can only recommend Friend Request as a delightfully dumb slice of internet age schlock. The more fully-committed Unfriended, on the other hand, is essential viewing, one of the more significant horror canon entries of our time.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Friend Request (2017)

When the dirt cheap supernatural slasher Friend Request was first released in its native country of Germany, it was originally titled Unfriend. To avoid confusion with the modern found footage classic Unfriended (known as Unknown User in Germany), the title was later switched to Friend Request in its move to the US. That marketing decision may have helped distinguish this film from assumptions that it belonged to the same franchise timeline as that Blumhouse production, in which a group of shithead high school teens are hunted by the ghost of a friend who committed suicide as a result of their bullying, a story told entirely through the POV of the Final Girl’s laptop. Comparisons in quality between the two films are inevitable, however, as Friend Request is also about a group of internet-addicted youngsters (this time college-age med students) who are hunted down by the vengeful spirit of a suicide victim; it’s just not framed as a found footage narrative. The comparison does Friend Request no favors, really, as it’s the Bucky Larson: Born to be a Porn Star to Unfriended’s Boogie Nights, the Corky Romano to its Goodfellas. As the sillier, more formulaic entry into the social media-age technophobic horror canon, the film only stands a chance to excel as a campy, over-the-top novelty. Thankfully, as an airheaded jump scare fest about a Faceboook witch, it delivers on that entertainment potential (in)competently. Friend Request may be the dumbest movie I’ve seen all year, but I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t solidly entertaining.

A second year psychology student befriends a recent student transfer to her class, a gothy Nell type, out of pure social pity. She has enough empathy in her heart to throw this newbie weirdo a friend request on “Facebook” (or some generic equivalent), but not enough to actually hang out with her or invite her to parties. After a few overly-needy exchanges online, she wisely decides to back away from this social media “friendship,” knocking the new girl’s friend count back down to a near-impossible zero. Hurt, the goth kid kills herself and uploads the video of her death to social media from beyond the grave, haunting her former “friend” as vengeance for turning her back. That’s when the traditional ghost story plot kicks in. One by one, her closest friends are violently killed by this spurned goth ghost, each “friended” by her account immediately before their deaths, despite her own demise. Videos of their attacks are posted to the psych student’s account & timeline, so that her own friends list plummets with each post under the assumption that she’s a callous, heartless monster for sharing such content. The posts cannot be deleted. The account cannot be deactivated. She has no choice but to watch as her social life crumbles and she falls to the lowly societal status initially occupied by the hopelessly goth Nell who haunts her from the digital afterworld. To make things worse, the goth ghost is also revealed to be some kind of internet-age witch who can hack & weaponize all computer devices thanks to her command of demonic code that defies the rules of our puny 1’s & 0’s, placing all internet domains under her wicked dominion.

I’m a huge sucker for this kind of modern gimmickry, where of-the-moment technology is incorporated into the fabric of disposable genre films. Of course, I can think of better examples in the social media exploitation genre (Unfriended, Nerve, and #horror all immediately come to mind), but I believe Friend Request’s novelty as an over-the-top 2010s technophobic horror will only become more valuable over time. The film is deceptively generic in its (surprisingly effective) jump scares & general haunted house aesthetic, which incorporates imagery like baby doll parts, mirrors, and woodland settings so familiar you can see them all represented in Bray Wyatt’s pro wrestling promos. What will make it more valuable later on is the way it also documents what modern social media browsing, especially on Facebook, looks like. Before the individual kills line up for the camera, much of Friend Request’s story is told through Facebook timeline montage, depicting mundane functions on the site like cover photos, deleting posts, error messages, “friending” (duh), “liking,” etc. It takes cinema this trashy to bother with that kind of pedestrian detail, which is more of an accurate time capsule of life & communication in the 2010s than any classy indie drama or expensive superhero epic likely will be able to capture. I was also tickled by the film’s decision to make its ominous warnings about the pitfalls of Internet Addiction Disorder ludicrously literal in making the laptops & PCs themselves demonic objects that must be destroyed. The film’s Facebook witch uses laptops as the modern equivalent of black mirrors, making them the source of evil spells. This not only opens the film up to the interesting imagery like characters’ reflections in the screen being overlaid with timeline scrolls; it also leads to ridiculous line readings like, “Sometimes she would stare at the computer for hours, nothing on the screen at all, just her reflection in the dark.” That’s adorable.

Comparing Friend Request to Unfriended, the Citizen Kane of its micro-genre, can only weaken its cultural value. Considered on its own, it’s a fun, goofy-as-fuck horror with a direct-to-VOD feel in its production, but a strong enough gimmick & sense of violence to leave a lasting impression, however cheap. The movie often knows it’s having fun, too, making room for obvious punchlines like, “Unfriend the dead bitch!” whenever possible. I can only report my experience as a sucker for the social media-phobic horror as an artform (as well as other gimmicky genres of its ilk), but I found the film to be a total blast, one of the year’s more surprisingly delightful slices of schlock.

-Brandon Ledet

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Anyone who engages with some form of social media is aware by now that there is a massive gulf between the personae we present online and our True Selves. By skewering LA hipsters who cultivate online celebrity through carefully curated Instagram profiles, the dark comedy Ingrid Goes West isn’t necessarily revealing anything its audience isn’t already aware of. The titular protagonist of that work, however, is a relatively fresh look at how that artificial cultivation of an online Personal Brand affects its consumers, specifically those suffering from mental illness. Ingrid Thorburn, miserably brought to life by Aubrey Plaza, is a character as worthy of study as Robert DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin or Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates. In a lot of ways, Ingrid Goes West falls short of being worthy of that performance, which updates the classic-tragic Lead Role Psychopath for the online stalker era in both a darkly humorous & incredibly tense way. The story that forms around Plaza’s turn as Thorburn isn’t afforded nearly as much nuance as the character herself, but her onscreen presence is alone enough to justify giving the movie a look.

Ingrid Thorburn begins her tragic saga in isolation, with only the cold glow of her smartphone holding her hand through a recent loss & the raw emotional compulsions of an obvious chemical imbalance. She frantically scans Instagram profiles for a point of contact out there in the great social void, desperately hanging on for dear life to any kind word or signal of acknowledgement. Her obsessions with individual Online Personalities are intensely focused, requiring just as much meticulous planning for stalking & befriending as her targets afford selfies & squared-off photographs of avocado toast. Her obsession du jour in this particular episode is an LA socialite (Elizabeth Olsen) who’s so wrapped up in her online persona that she builds a profession around advertising products on her feed. It turns out that there’s a vulnerability to constantly updating your location & minute-to-minute activities online, not least of all that your online followers can become your literal followers “in real life.” The even bigger danger, though, is in having people interpret your online hyperbole as actual sincerity. There’s a huge difference between advertising that a breakfast spot sells The Best Avocado Toast In The World and telling another human being “You’re so funny. I love you so much. You’re amazing. You’re my favorite person I’ve ever met.” When you’re dealing with human emotions, especially ones as pronounced as Ingrid Thorburn’s, that kind of disconnect from sincerity & authenticity can be dangerously cruel, especially when your victim discovers you’re not really “friends.”

There are theoretically better versions of this same story where the thriller aspects are highlighted & Ingrid becomes a kind of social media assassin who drags her obsessions down to her level or where LA charlatans & phonies are comedically lampooned for being heartless demons. Instead, Ingrid Goes West floats halfway between those extremes in a noncommittal way. There’s some incisive criticism of Los Angeles Bohemia in subtle digs at its barely-concealed racism or the unspoken expense of its “rustic” mason jars & potted succulents lifestyle. Ingrid badly wants to be an avocado toast kind of girl, but she’s much more at home eating McDonald’s out of the bag; there’s a wealth class difference in that distinction. The movie’s much stronger in its intense thriller beats, however, drumming up more visible thirst in Ingrid’s eyes than Sofia Coppola even dared to conjure in her recent remake of The Beguiled. You’re never sure if Ingrid wants to eat, fuck, or Single White Female her obsessive targets and the movie’s strongest moments are in accentuating the delicate intensity of that unspoken desire. It will often diffuse the danger of her real world stalking with a comedic sing-along to K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” or the charming presence of Straight Outta Compton‘s O’Shea Jackson Jr., who plays the world’s most patient man (& biggest Batman enthusiast). I’m not sure looking to Ingrid Goes West for insightful satire on cellphone addiction or the inauthenticity of social media posturing is ever nearly as satisfying as watching Ingrid Thorburn dangle from a thin thread while she tries to land herself a lifelong bestie as if she were shopping for clothes online. Aubrey Plaza does a fantastic job of making that precarious intensity a memorable, worthwhile viewing experience, but it is somewhat of a shame that the movie it supports couldn’t match that performance in its extremity or specificity.

-Brandon Ledet

Sickhouse (2016)

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threehalfstar

I’m a huge sucker for throwaway details from internet-specific visual palettes being employed in my cheap genre cinema. Titles like Unfriended, Nerve, #horror, and Beware the Slenderman have all incorporated bullshit, disposable internet imagery in their visual aesthetic to terrorize audiences with social media alarmism in a way that feels fresh & fascinating to me, making for some of my favorite cinematic experiences in the past few years. I honestly believe that these films, although instantly dated, will serve as a great time capsule of where our culture is currently at mentally & spiritually a few decades down the line, the way slashers defined the 80s & torture porn ruled the 00s. The dirt cheap, smart phone-filmed found footage horror Sickhouse joins the recent trend of social media-obsessed genre cinema by pushing its premise even further into verisimilitude. Released over three days last Spring via a series of posts on the Snapchat app, this hour-long cheapie actively participates in the social media platform it openly condemns. By adopting the format of its critical target right down to its mode of release, Sickhouse emerges feeling like a newly exciting filmmaking innovation, despite easy complaints that could be lobbed its way in terms of narrative ambition. Admittedly, the film doesn’t stray too far from its Blair Witch But With Snapchat premise in any narrative sense, but as an experiment in genre film technique, that formula was more than enough to generate some interesting results, especially for those as enamored as I am with films like Unfriended and Nerve.

“Have you ever seen The Blair Witch Project?” A character bluntly asks his fellow teens this blatantly silly question over a campfire, knowing full well that they’ve already been living the exact plot of that late-90s milestone. A handful of young, overconfident fools venture into the woods to investigate an urban legend about a haunted house, documenting their every move with an ever-present smartphone. Like with Blair Witch, their dialogue is mostly improvised, one character is blamed for getting the whole crew hopelessly lost, and there’s an excess of extratextual material backing up the central folklore to make it feel legitimate (visitsickhouse.com). According to that smokescreen website’s account of the True Events, the titular Sickhouse has three defining rules: 1) Don’t make any noise, 2) Don’t go inside, 3) Leave a gift on the porch. Like with Blair Witch, our dumb teen protagonists turn their noses up at genuine engagement with the local legend, laughing off the danger of the scenario and breaking every single rule set before them. Also like Blair Witch, they’re punished within the house they clearly should have avoided venturing inside in the first place, but there is no gore or violent end shown onscreen. Anyone looking for more than a brief flash of a face or a hand from the teens’ supernatural tormentors is going to be disappointed by what’s delivered. The film instead attempts to creep the audience out through pure folklore & mythology. Have I mentioned The Blair Witch Project enough to get the general vibe & narrative of the film across? Because it’s exactly like Blair Witch.

What’s most important here is form, not content. Sickhouse is shot entirely through the rectangular aspect ratio of a vertical smartphone video. Onscreen text & MS Paint quality doodles overlay the imagery in the way most Snapchat videos would be hastily edited. Because shots cannot extend past 10 seconds in length due to Snapchat’s formatting, the film finds kinetic energy in a never-ending series of rapid fire shots. Characters philosophize about the nature of Snapchat and social media at large at length. When our smartphone-toting protagonist is admonished for posting too often, she’s told, “Snapchat’s not a documentary. It’s just . . . stuff.” As an audience, we all know that it’s carefully curated “stuff,” though. Even when the two girls that drive the plot are sleeping, camping, or running for their lives in a haunted house, they’re always wearing make-up and always attempting to choose the most flattering angles for their omni-present faces. One of those two girls is played by *shudder* “YouTube personality” Andrea Russet, who brings a kind of authentically false persona to the role of a narcissistic brat who obsessively cultivates online fans, but will also chide friends for using their phones too often. Russet’s real life YouTube Channel features bafflingly popular videos with inane titles like, “Dying My Hair Purple,” “Cuddling With My Ex-Boyfriend,” and “My Morning Routine,” so her onscreen presence, as painfully inauthentic as it feels, actually has a lot of credibility to it that makes Sickhouse feels as close to the genuine thing as possible.

I’m not convinced writer-director Hannah MacPherson knows exactly what to do with all of this internet age narcissism & over-sharing except to represent it onscreen. There’s nothing to Sickhouse‘s social media themes that are explored too far beyond maybe a character ironically declaring, “Social media is a plague” while obsessively uploading short-form videos to Snapchat or a few online “followers” becoming stalker-level followers in a much more literal, physical sense. Still, the way MacPherson applies the visual & narrative techniques of broadcasting a curated personal aesthetic on social media to a standard obnoxious teens getting punished for smoking weed & having sex horror structure make for some really exciting results. I have my own stray complaints about some of her individual choices (the ending could’ve been more jarring, the third act body horror of the teens becoming ill could’ve been pushed further, there really was no need for any non-diegetic music), but for the most part I was delighted & energized by what she pulls off here. Many will brush off Sickhouse as a gimmick, an act of frivolity, but I think it’s secretly a doorway to the future of filmmaking. Not the long-term future, mind you, but certainly what’s soon to come. Even Sickhouse‘s phone screen aspect ratio makes it feel as if you’re peeking in on the film through a doorway and that space-conscious tension allows for an unnerving feeling in images like a mangled deer or a well-arranged still life of “gifts” left on the titular house’s porch. That won’t be enough of a payoff for everyone who tunes in, but I at the very least found it to be an entertaining experiment.

-Brandon Ledet

Nerve (2016)

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fourhalfstar

If you read this blog regularly you might be surprised that there’s no Camp Stamp perched at the top of this review. Trust me, I’m even more surprised than you are. I went into Nerve expecting a trashy thriller version of Unfriended and, in some ways,  that’s exactly what the film delivered. However, I was shocked to find myself genuinely engaging with its smartphone app paranoia instead of chuckling at that gimmick’s over-the-top absurdity. In fact, I think Nerve is actually kind of brilliant? Like, maybe one of the best movies I’ve seen all year? What am I even saying? There’s something really special about how the film adopts the action thriller genre for teen girl sensibilities that I find really smart & fresh, if not long overdue. Other YA action properties like The Hunger Games & The Divergent Series might have female protagonists, so Nerve isn’t exactly unique there, but they typically appeal to a much wider demographic within a certain age range. Nerve, on the other hand, is the single most aggressively feminine action thriller I can ever remember seeing, an aesthetic that mixes with its killer smart phone app technophobia premise to create something really fun & truly memorable without devolving into so-bad-it’s-good schlock. This film is the biggest surprise of the summer for me & I’m already prepared to watch it again, being “the watcher”that I apparently am.

I guess I should admit up front I was already a little predisposed to root for Nerve‘s success before I even reached the theater, because its trailer promised that it’d indulge in one of my favorite recent movie tropes. Something that really excites me in modern genre pictures is when directors incorporate new, cheap forms of disposable digital imagery in their visual palette. I’ve been delighted by the real time Skype horror of Unfriended, the psychedelic emoji & social media game kaleidoscope of #horror, the pixelated flip phone video footage of Amy, etc. The only time cheap digital imagery has actively bothered me in a film was in David Lynch’s persistently ugly standard-definition work Inland Empire, but I’m willing to chalk that up as a failed early experiment. Nerve joins the fray, picking up with #horror‘s particular adoption of social media game imagery in its story about fame-hungry teens completing an escalating series of dares for large piles of cash. It’s basically Do It for the Vine: The Horror Film, with a steady flow of “like” cartoon hearts & glitchy animated .gif imagery backing up its online visual palette with a kind of creepy, “dark web” terror & grotesque message board sense of humor. The visual choices are not subtle here. When the film wants to conjure Anonymous, it breaks out the Guy Fawkes masks. It is, however, very much of the time and, in my opinion, a fascinating new avenue of visual discovery for cinema to explore while it still feels current to the cultural zeitgeist.

Although the film’s premise of teens competing for social media fame obviously carries a lot of millennial-shaming baggage in its basic DNA, Nerve‘s secret weapon is in how it celebrates teen-specific adventurousness within that digital-age moralizing. High school photography student Vee (Scream Queens‘s eternally hoarse Emma Roberts) finds herself frustrated with her reputation as a boring nerd & decides to shake up her safe, suburban life by adventuring into the big city (think of a less racist Adventures in Babysitting) in a game of Nerve. Hideously self-described as “a game of truth or dare without the truth,” Nerve is a social media game that combines modern surveillance state mining of personal information from various online profiles with a deadly version of reality TV game show gawking not too far off from Roger Corman & Paul Bartel’s creation in Death Race 2000. This teeny bopper millennial version of The Running Man drags a reluctant Vee far outside her comfort zone, Trojan horsing a surprisingly potent coming of age narrative inside a tawdry action thriller shell. Nerve might indulge in some occasional eyeroll-worthy Hollywood touches, mostly in its pairing of Vee with a cute romantic partner (“Lil'” Dave Franco, whose brother James apparently exists in this universe as his famous self) & its depiction of female-jealousies competitiveness between Vee & her best friend, but those relationships are actually determined & manipulated by the game’s “watchers”, so they’re more a part of the film’s audience indictment than a blind misstep. For the most part, this film is about Vee’s journey to find her own strengths & desires in a wild, out-of-character night of teenage rebellion & Bling Ring-esque excess set to aggressively girly pop music beats & the same neon lights nightlife palette of films like Drive. Vee is likeable, but also vaguely undefined in a way that allows her to serve as an audience surrogate for the kids playing along at home (both in the movie & otherwise). I can’t remember the last time a dangerous action thriller was so unashamedly marketed for teen girls. I have to say, it felt refreshing.

Unlike the film’s trailer, I don’t want to give away too much of Nerve‘s plot here, but things do get a little more complicated as the film indulges in some Hackers-style onsceen coding on “the dark web” in the third act. Vee & her mysterious suitor find themselves “prisoners of the game” where “the only way out is to win,” unless they can tear the whole system down against in a life-threatening race against the odds or whatever. In some ways it’s actually a miracle, given how much ground it covers & cinema’s current climate, that Nerve wasn’t adopted from its YA novel source material into a years-long trilogy with a two-part conclusion. Instead, we’re blessed with a fairly concise & effortless action thriller that I expected to find delightfully corny but instead just found delightful. The two leads are cute. The internet-specific imagery gimmick afforded the film some all-important distinctiveness. When two girls have a climactic argument it’s over something much more personally significant than boys (despite that conversation’s catalyst). There’s a moment where Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” is actually put to important, narratively potent use, maybe even standing as my favorite pop music cue of the year so far. There’s a “White People Problems” punchline that’s somehow legitimately funny despite this not being 2009. I’m not sure if this technically counts as a spoiler, but my entire theater gasped with joy when Samira “Poussey” Wiley appeared onscreen halfway into the runtime, which was the best communal at-the-movies moment I’ve had in a long while. For the most part, Nerve just made me feel great, an escapist high that marks the best aspect of the summertime action thriller.

It’d be easy to treat Nerve like a campy farce, thanks to its ludicrous premise or details like its drone-based jump scare or its tense shot of a mouse cursor pensively hovering over the “like” button on a Facebook post. However, I genuinely enjoyed the film far too much to treat it that way and those elements mostly play like self-aware summertime fun once the overall tone finds its appropriate groove. It’d also be easy to fault the film for its millennial shaming in the way it depicts teens as smart-phone addicted fame chasers, but I don’t thank that reading holds water either. If anything, Nerve presents a fantasy world where technology actually makes people more adventurous instead of less insular (the same argument a lot of folks tend to use to defend the popularity of Pokémon Go). Instead, I’d pin the film as the most surprisingly successful popcorn flick of the summer, a thoroughly enjoyable action thriller that shouts its teen girl femininity just as loudly & proudly as its instantly dated, 2016-specific pedigree. I’m honestly still in shock over how much that dynamic worked for me.

-Brandon Ledet