Film review: ‘TFW No GF’ mines quasi-empathy for bored and ignored millennial trolls

TFW No GF was released on Valentine’s Day. As a cruel joke? Or in ironic solidarity with the film’s subjects? Both, I hope.

Alex Lee Moyer’s documentary film, premiered at the digital edition of SXSW in 2020, tells the stories of five men. More specifically, they are white, millennial internet trolls identified only by their first names or handles: Sean, Charels, Viddy, Kyle and Kantbot.

They are close in age, but the list of similarities is otherwise relatively short (except for Charels and Viddy, who are brothers). They come from all over the country and from urban, suburban and rural locales. What these men share, aside from a pathological degree of ambivalence, is captured in an acronym and a meme: “TFW no GF,” or “that feeling when no girlfriend,” and a line drawing of a man called “Wojak,” a mascot that, apparently, proliferates certain corners of the internet.

Moyer and her team — including music maker Ariel Pink featuring John Maus and animator Prince of Zimbabwe — parallel the inner workings of these men’s minds in the film’s design. By turns frenetic and banal, in the best way, a fast-scrolling social media feed gives way to a freight train surrounded by post-industrial decay, or view after view of Kyle stumbling to watering holes throughout mostly-beige El Paso (at first, then in his dusty home town of Lubbock, TX). Kyle’s cowboy vibe should contradict that of Sean, an introverted gym rat who lives with his mom in Colorado. It doesn’t. Sean shares an atypical kinship with New Yorker Kantbot, a modern philosopher who’s rationalized Trump’s rise to power via Immanuel Kant. The brothers, Charels and Viddy, grew up with alcoholic parents and little access to anything other than what rural Washington provided them. Circumstances forced them to lean on the internet and each other to form social skills — such as they are. These are specifically millennial characters, raised not knowing a time before the internet and amidst an economic crisis that harshly contradicted American exceptionalism. Yet they are also timeless; these boys who have only recently become men operate much like any generation of outcasts trying to find their way.

TFW No GF is a deep enough dive into the lives and online personas of these five men to make anyone squirm. They are, in some ways, unknowable characters, introverted, depressed and habitually disinterested in the hamster wheel of life. However, they don’t hesitate to disclose some of their deepest feelings. Does it matter that it is a woman who is behind the camera? Probably.

Charels and Viddy, in particular, flirt dangerously close to extremist movements led primarily by disaffected white men on the internet which can, and have, seeped through the cracks of the dark web, manifesting IRL as this country’s recent and deepest traumas and embarrassments: mass shootings, Charlottesville, Trumpism and the insurrection at the Capitol, to name a few.

It feels not too far a stretch to go from Incels (involuntary celibates) and NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) — shy, nerdy, and often uneducated young men looking for love in all the wrong places — seeking acceptance in the weirdest parts of Twitter and 4Chan (an anonymous and practically unregulated message board) to the QAnon Florida man toting Nancy Pelosi’s lectern. But the crux of Moyer’s argument, at least according to her subjects, is that they know the difference; they know what’s real and what’s satire. And are acutely aware that some among them don’t. That, unfortunately, appears to be a matter of excitement for these chaps. But in allowing them to largely speak for themselves, Moyer mines a kind of empathy I didn’t expect to feel for perpetually misunderstood individuals who are used to being ignored and, in fact, revel in the comradery of people they don’t actually know. It’s the feelings TFW No GF provokes within each of us, rather than for the characters themselves, that are most unnerving about this film. Given a different set of circumstances, I could easily be them and they me. But being someone else, from what I gather, is not quite the point. Mostly, I get the sense that, with anonymity, comes confidence and creativity. Acceptance, even. It’s hard not to feel that, even as these men categorically reject everything about my identity, real and perceived.

TFW No GF is available for rent or purchase via YouTube and Amazon.