Lexi: An American Vanishing is an effectively unsettling mockumentary horror with plenty to say about a life lived online.
Synopsis: A mockumentary horror feature that explores the mysterious disappearance of a motivational influencer.
It feels difficult to describe Lexi as a found-footage film, even though there are certainly elements of that here, but this is more in keeping with the kind of docu-horror as presented in films like Death of a Vlogger, situating the scares within a wraparound documentary format that focuses on the impact of social media on an individual. While some parts of Lexi don’t always land, the centring of an influencer Laughing Lexi (Victoria Vertuga) allows the story to explore some all-too-real horrors about being a woman online.
Lexi feels like a very timely piece, presented as a true crime documentary (some sections feel like an excellent mimic of the likes of Dateline, for example) piecing together the last known elements before her disappearance. In its switches between talking-head ‘experts’, Lexi’s vlogs, surveillance footage from static cameras and even an opening body-worn camera scene it put me in mind immediately of Neflix’s American Murder: The Family Next Door in terms of the often invasive, near-real-time access provided. Lexi, as a fictional take is able to poke a little more at that framing device and the desire to present titilating, shocking material under the guise of concern. This is not so much a parody of that media type, but does serve to show how the entertainment elements are often ramped up.
Part of this poking comes from the experts that offer their opinions to the documentarian. Camille (Maya Zapata) is a rival influencer with doubts over Lexi’s disappearance and an insight into the world of influencers. Zapata plays the role with relish, mostly as an ultra-competitive Mean Girl-type, but with a softness where the tone calls for it that furthers the film’s overall aim at what consequences social media may have. Elsewhere, Thomas Hobson impresses as Nate, an author who has written books on the case, delivering his theories with a side of deadpan humour that sneaks in now and then to remind you that you are watching a narrative feature and break some tension. Susan Louise O’Connor stars as Elera, another author who has perhaps more outlandish, otherworldly theories to offer. O’Connor presents an initial lightness but is able to switch to a firmer tone as her insistence that something supernatural is to fault grows.
Lastly, Victoria Vertuga (also co-writing with Eric Williford and directing) plays the titular Lexi excellently, striking a performance that has to be split between her ‘real’ life, her blogs and then through the course of the film. Lexi and her channel Laughing Lexi have been designed to evoke that bubbly influencer quality of bubblegum graphics and life advice that quickly steers into outright ridiculousness. Peppering her videos with lines like, ‘as soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul’, there is an almost affectionate skewering of the kind of content that young women may gather followings for online. It is key, though, that Lexi, even if she may come out with strange quotes and saccharine advice, is harmless. The wider harm comes from the external world, from trolling, exploitation, the desire to ‘hate-watch’ and people’s seemingly unstoppable appetite for tragedy.
From a horror standpoint, the film delivers on some brilliantly unnerving set pieces but it is the cumulative effect and growing unease that gives it strength. Lexi may frustrate some in its steadfast adherence to the rules of the format it borrows from in terms of providing ‘answers’. The horror within Lexi is the discomfort of watching someone with the foreknowledge that something terrible has likely happened to them. The film’s drip-feed approach may also leave some cold, but there is enough momentum and colour provided to keep things moving. Further than that, that an entire industry, featuring books like That Ain’t Lexi and Lexi’s Last Laugh have sprung up around a missing woman feels all the more uncomfortable for how much the film allows you to be in the same space as her and experience the events. The dry humour in some sections is perfectly balanced by the distressing ones. The film itself is a pandemic project, made with very few resources so the lack of polish in some areas is completely understandable, even adding to the effect to some extent.
A timely exploration of the female star image online, set against pandemic paranoia. If so much has been done as a Plan B in the wake of the pandemic to stay occupied, it is very exciting to think about what this team could achieve with a wider scope.
4 out of 5 stars
Lexi is now available to rent from Vimeo On Demand with more platforms to follow.