Lifetime Review: 'Deadly Influencer'
Social media success comes at a messy price in this expertly acted Lifetime flick.
High school senior Jessica Lake (Abby Ross) aspires to pursue the world of fashion, with her vlog promoting style and makeup tips as an avenue to channel her passion, and a means of dealing with her recent move to a new town and school. Another source of comfort comes in the form of Skylar Madison (Morgan Taylor Campbell), a student at Jessica's new school who she has already formed an online friendship with.
With Skylar being a self-proclaimed social media influencer, she quickly takes Jessica under her wing, and goes to work helping her build a stronger following for her vlogs, much to Jessica's excitement and the wariness of her mother Lynn (Anne Dudek). What Jessica doesn't know is that Skylar was also the manager for the school's popular online model Monica Davis (Hayley Festeryga)—and killed her when she tried to break free from Skylar's controlling behavior. Can Jessica escape her psychotic new friend's clutches before Skylar destroys her?
Deadly Influencer serves as a mixture of two popular Lifetime subgenres: the large encompassing "Teen Drama" genre, and the narrower "Perils of Technology/Social Media" subsection. What sets Deadly Influencer apart from other Lifetime films that use social media as a catalyst for their plots is that it not only subverts the "Social Media is the Root of All Evil" fallacy, but openly defies it. While much is said about the dangerous side of social media and its effects, the film makes it clear there is just as much good to be found in cyberspace as bad, and the dangers take hold only if one allows it to consume their life. It's a progressive message that will surprise those that view these sorts of movies in the same light as 80s PSAs.
In addition to the strong dose of Lifetime-ian drama it delivers, much of Deadly Influencer's strength is derived from the excellent cast and their characters. Having previously appeared as the morally shaded Missy in Forsaken, Morgan Taylor Campbell shifts direction as the thoroughly villainous Skylar Madison, and digs into the psychotic and arrogant control freak with a deep vigor. From her first scene of passive aggressively silencing a party to make an announcement, Campbell establishes Skylar's personality, and continues to build on it throughout the story. With her natural ability to manipulate, and her extensive plans and connections, Skylar is a villainess you will watch in awe as she puts her scheme into action, at the same time you revile at how controlling and self-important she is.
In remarkable subtlety achieved by Campbell, a tragic side emerges from Skylar that the audience can see without the film openly pointing it out. Her backstory reveals Skylar's past struggles with a controlling and emotionally abusive mother, and there are scenes where you can feel the effect her upbringing has had on her. One strong example comes in a scene where Skylar scolds herself during a breakdown, with her words, and Campbell's powerful delivery giving the intense feeling that Skylar is replicating her mother's cruelty on herself. This all serves to make Skylar a well-rounded antagonist, as well as an entertaining one.
Starring opposite Campbell is Abby Ross, who previously appeared on Lifetime in Killer Body. Much like Ross' character in that film, Jessica Lake is a subversion of the Teenage Brat archetype, which is most notable in regards to her attitude regarding her vlog. Rather than being seduced by the prospect of Skylar helping her achieve online fame, Jessica's motivation is to use her fashion vlog as an opportunity to start her pursuit of a fashion career. When she does achieve social media fame, Jessica values it not out of vanity, but out of genuine joy over how her content has helped her fans—a care that leaves her open to exploitation and manipulation from Skylar.
Ross plays Jessica with heartwarming sincerity, and plays well off Campbell in their toxic friendship dynamic, with Jessica's genuine care for Skylar making the latter's schemes all the more diabolical. Ross also shares strong mother-daughter chemistry with Anne Dudek, with Jessica and Lynn's relationship being one of sincere care on both sides, even as Skylar's machinations cause friction between them. The pair are both also proactive in realizing Skylar's true agenda (Lynn being suspicious immediately and Jessica noticing Skylar's bizarre behavior, but not realizing its true depth until later) and team up to put a stop to her. This all culminates in a satisfactory conclusion, where Ross delivers the film's most heartfelt scene for all its worth.
Anne Dudek is strong on her own as well, playing Lynn as a deeply loving, caring, and competent mother. While her stance against social media tend to get a bit on-the-nose and slightly biased, the film makes it clear that Lynn's stance does not extend to wanting her daughter to give up the vlog she's become so passionate about. Allison Graham gives a brief but emotional performance as Monica Davis' mother Julia, and Avaah Blackwell develops into a surprise gem over the course of the film as Skylar's cousin Doreen.
Matias Lucas is also charming enough as Jessica's love interest Rick, though the film gives him little to do other than be arm candy for its heroine. Rick is also given an unnecessary backstory, as it never factors into the story, and seems to serve only to add to the film's already strong theme. And as much as I enjoyed Campbell's performance, there are a few places where her performance goes a bit too far to the point of bordering on cheesy. The film's ultimate conclusion can also strike some as too much in terms of sentiment, though its heartwarming feel is still maintained by Ross' strong performance.
Like the best of Lifetime's teen drama films, Deadly Influencer delivers top notch drama that Lifetime fanatics will flock to, maintained by Campbell's brilliant portrayal of the film's deranged villainess. Add in strong performances from the rest of the cast, and a lot of heart that permeates throughout the film thanks namely to the performances of Ross and Dudek, and you have a movie that makes up for its faults and stands up as a Lifetime thriller at its best.
Score: 10 out of 10 potassium chloride shipments.