Alex Lee Moyer’s “TFW NO GF”: A Review
When TFW NO GF (digitally) premiered at South by South West last year, most media and reviews framed it as “the incel doc.” Peter Debruge’s Variety’s write-up reads, “Director Alex Lee Moyer addresses the incel phenomenon as a question of loneliness…”
Seeing the label ‘incel’ affixed to it again and again, I can’t help but ask, “did we watch the same film?”
The first thing you should know about TFW NO GF, is that it’s not a movie about incels — which is a real and discrete online subculture with its own aesthetic language, slang, and philosophy. Not only that, but it is also not a movie about the phrase it borrows its title from, tfw no gf, which is short for “that feel[ing I get] when [I have] no girlfriend.” Nor is it about the “I know that feel, bro” Wojak meme originally posted alongside “tfw no gf’s” first appearance on 4chan on February 23rd, 2011, or a documentary about 4chan and lonely men on the Internet en masse.
While the internet corners the protagonists of TFW NO GF belong to borrow the aesthetics of other places online, among which are a myriad of internet subcultures, including incels, to say the film it’s a history of or a meditation on ‘incels’ is misleading.
TFW NO GF, rather, is a documentary about five different and sometimes intersecting expressions of loneliness, and how they manifest on a singular corner of (for the most part) Twitter; esoteric, humorous, right-wing or at least right-wing adjacent, steeped in irony, male-dominated, often provocative. While I don’t know the people documented in the film, I wouldn’t be surprised if they all turned out to follow one another. At least two of them throughout the documentary are indeed revealed as friends.
The film follows five visibly alienated young men who regularly ‘shitpost’, and explores how such habit has given them a semblance of humor, and in some cases, community, in an otherwise alienating and often humiliating world. ‘Shitposting’ is something to do, and the Internet is a place to loiter when all other places have failed them. Like the internet itself, the film is fragmentary, with no single narrative arc. And like the internet, it’s also aesthetically complicated: interviews are flanked between alternating shots of suburban sprawl, New York City, our subjects’ daily lives, screenshots, and memes — all woven together in a way that gives the same impression of hopelessness and despair our subjects, Sean, Charels, Viddy, Kantbot, and Kyle, do.
“[Where I live] it’s the kind of place where it’s all just like, strip malls and industrial places and empty lots, burned-down buildings. None of them seem like actual places you can go to. They’re just like, setpieces. Background. At the same time, it’s really beautiful, in a way.”
Since its release, while positive reviews of TFW NO GF praised director Alex Lee Moyer for her lack of sensationalism, negative ones seemed to mostly wonder just where the critique of these guys was. The director does focus on documenting and portraying the protagonists’ surroundings, lives, and state of mind, without ever making any clear moral judgment.
What these reviews are missing, however, is that the critique of the protagonists, as well as the moment they exist in more generally, is implicit in the honesty of the film itself. Moyer may not be shy about underscoring some of the men’s positive attributes — Kantbot’s intelligence; Charels and Viddy’s sense of humor — she also makes sure not to sugarcoat their lives or paint them as martyrs of modernity in their individual struggles with loneliness and isolation. There is no need to intersperse a voice-over that says, “This was irresponsible,” when Charels, for example, has his weapons seized by the police and ends up on national news for posting “one ticket for Joker please” while brandishing two AK-47s.
There’s also no need to say “This is racist” out loud when the camera lingers on Kyle’s Confederate flag signet ring when we first meet him, or “This is misogynistic” when we see a tweet that outright reads, “I hate women.” That these men are on the margins, and yes, perhaps at times also pathetic, is implicit in the fact they were chosen as interview subjects for a film about social alienation’s relationship with the internet in the first place. Some of the criticism of Moyer’s film direction, therefore, as typical of modern mainstream reviewers, doesn’t give her audience enough credit. What would a more robust critique look like? We know these men engage in antisocial behavior already.
Apparently unconditioned by mainstream society’s expectations, what the director seems to be really doing with TFW NO GF is asking (or at least attempting to ask) the right questions: What is the texture of antisocial online behavior? Who engages in it? What led them there? Why is it expressed in this way?
Over the course of its one hour and twenty-three minutes run, Moyer manages to give a satisfying answer to the first two questions. It is clear that this, whatever it is, is more of a generational moment, or perhaps a type, than a subculture per se.
By the end of the film, we also have a good sense of what it looks like: their shared language of Internet slang and memes, where they congregate online, their shared sense of desolation. We also get a good idea of who these people are. There’s enough in it to understand who we’re traveling with: Young men, as old as in their early thirties and as young as in their teens, American, of any education level but presumably middle or upper-middle class, probably, though not necessarily, white.
What led them there, to a life where shit-posting is among the happier or more care-free moments, while gestured at, is a question that remains mostly unanswered. Moyer does a good, and genuinely honest job at portraying the alienation these men are experiencing. Yet even after watching TFW NO GF, we still aren’t sure why some men today are stuck in this suspended adolescence where provocation and irony are the lingua franca and online microcelebrity is one of the better outcomes, and why others live happy lives, and if not happy ones, at least ones of a ‘quieter’ desperation. Do they have something in common, outside of a general sense of alienation?
One of the most interesting threads in the film is the idea that, for these men, the act of provoking is one of the few, if not the only available way to have fun. But if that’s true then why? Why make yourself seen in this way, when some of your peers are doing just as well consuming and creating regular YouTube or TikTok content? One remarks that the “biggest misconception” about people like him “is that they’re doing it for reasons other than fun.” But what is it about negative attention that is more addictive or satisfying than other people’s drive for positive attention? Is it that this negative attention is interpolated as positive attention within the microcosm we’re situated in? If so, why? Some of the themes that could have answered these questions are not explored in the film.
Where Moyer could have dived more in is the larger social context this Twitter cohort exists in. Outside of a few news clips at the beginning of the film, it’s hard to get a handle on how this moment is interacting with the rest of the world and with our larger cultural moment. We get the sense that the problems are economic; also, perhaps, tied to America’s aesthetic desolation; that people, in general, are less accepting of men, and white men in particular. I just wish that we could have seen more of what exactly is wrong with modernity, more tangibly and specifically.
One might speculate that part of the reason for the lack of outside points of view in TFW NO GF might be that the moment that Moyer is describing isn’t simply under-documented, but serially misrepresented. Again, one need not look further than reviews of her film to see where the problems begin.
Eric Langberg of Everything’s Interesting, rather predictably, opens his with:
“On May 23rd, 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 more in a series of stabbings, shootings, and vehicle assaults in Isla Vista, California. Beforehand, he posted a long manifesto online detailing his frustration with his inability to find a girlfriend; his victims were women and people he perceived to be sexually-active men, because he was jealous.”
He then continues with a list of violent crimes committed by self-identified or presumed incels, finally concluding:
“You’d never know [all of this] from the new documentary TFW NO GF… [which is] an intimate look at a handful of young men who self-identify as incels and use the internet as a coping mechanism for their loneliness.”
Yes, incels are real, and so is online extremism — but this film is about neither. So why do even the positive reviews pretend that it is? TFW NO GF interacts with the incel phenomenon, sure, but it is obviously not about the incel phenomenon. Perhaps this was a blindspot of the film itself all along. Should the director have made it more clear that incels are a distinct group with a common, easily shareable, therefore often shared, language?
Honest, and more importantly precise, documentation of internet subcultures and moments is at best emergent, at worst nonexistent. Critiques of these subcultures are almost certainly non-existent, save for a few fringe blogs. The only people Moyer might have at her disposal, therefore, and in her defense, are the people who engage in it themselves. To allow accuracy and depth to be portrayed in every phenomenon, you first need its surface to be widely culturally accessible. But this appears to be a new problem, and Mayer is one of the first in her industry to tap into it.
Overall, TFW NO GF is a well-made and respectful portrayal of an overly-demonized and not nearly enough discussed subject. It is also the first of its kind: the first documentary to reach anything even approximating mainstream viewership that unabashedly looks at disenfranchised white Millennial and Zoomer American men without zeroing in on the possibility that they might be evil, or a simple product of ‘white supremacy’. In fact, it doesn’t even ask that question.
While these young, mostly lonely, and isolated men are certainly to (at least) partly be blamed for their situations, Moyer does a great job at reminding us we better do more and investigate deeper, rather than just treat them and dismiss them as a freakshow of modernity to be cynically jeered at. Whoever wishes to address the ultimate questions underneath these young men’s problems, ought to pick up where she left off.