Manic Pixie Stream Girl – KIMI

Steven Soderbergh’s newest tech thriller, KIMI, raises one of the more interesting questions I’ve had to ask in recent cinema. Namely, how unlikable can you make your ostensible protagonist before the viewers start rooting for the bad guys to win? Because, wow, just wow did I hate this lead character, so much so that an altogether intriguing and suspenseful concept comes off as chintzy, pulp trash due to how far she brings down the proceedings.

The film unfolds in what would normally be a quite brisk 90 minutes, were it not for the fact that we spend at least half that time establishing the myriad flaws of Angela Childs (so immature that she’s literally called a child about a third of the way through), played by Zoë Kravitz. She carries the vast majority of the film, to the point that the second-billed actress, Rita Wilson, only has one scene on camera and a phone conversation. I will say that Kravitz plays the role well. She is certainly a convincingly bad character and she fully commits to the conceit, but that doesn’t change the fact that Angela is an objectively horrible person.

Set in Seattle in the present day, pandemic and all, Angela works as a tech analyst for a company called Amygdala (named after the fear center of the brain, a meta joke that’s really clever if you’re a first-year film student), which manufactures the titular AI digital assistant, and is preparing for its initial public offering on the stock market due to the device’s success.

Already we’ve encountered the first major problem, as this film takes place in a COVID environment (likely a side effect of having to film under pandemic restrictions), but one where a new piece of personal technology has become ubiquitous, even though in reality, no such thing has come to pass. As such, until they made it absolutely clear that this was the here and now, I was left to ponder what sort of universe we were in, whether the film was set in the near future or some sort of parallel world. Because to simply accept this literal plot device – one that is introduced as a competitor to the likes of Siri and Alexa rather than as a parody or commentary – is an extraordinarily large ask from the movie mere moments in. This expectation of immediately taking everything at face value is unfortunately a trend that continues throughout.

Anyway, Angela, sporting bright blue hair that would rival Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim (her changing it to blonde later feels like an insult to people who make fashion choices independent of personal trauma), is an absolute mess of a person. She’s a shut-in to the point of being agoraphobic. This manifests itself in moments like bailing on her fuck buddy, Terry (Byron Bowers) for a “date” at the food truck literally parked in between their respective apartment buildings, and demanding that her dentist simply write a prescription for antibiotics and painkillers when in reality she needs a root canal, but absolutely refuses to leave the house and go to his office. She is an addict, self-medicating from tons of different pill bottles, and if that wasn’t obvious enough, she works out to Billie Eilish’s “Oxytocin.” In an obvious reference to Rear Window, she openly spies on her neighbors from her living room, and is in turn monitored by others. She’s so afraid of germs that half of her scenes involve her obsessively putting on hand sanitizer and waving her palms like a tiny bird. Her house key chain is the puzzle piece symbol for autism.

Now, all of this could work if Angela’s behaviors were ever dialed down from their constant level of “bitch on wheels.” Sadly, they are not. She is curt and rude with everyone she talks to, even when their sole purpose is to help her. In addition to telling her dentist how to do his job, she shows up late to an online therapy session, only to pull the computer equivalent of the “oh no, you’re breaking up” phone excuse to cut things off the moment her shrink dares mention the possibility of finding ways to cope with her issues and move forward with her life. She insists on everything being done on her exact terms with no flexibility, be it a construction crew working on the unit upstairs from her during normal business hours (she insists they only work outside of them, even though most of her work involves wearing noise-cancelling headphones) or her own booty calls, scolding Terry for coming up to her apartment without buzzing the doorbell first because someone let him in as they were passing, then rather than talk to the man post-coitus, she strips the bed to wash the sheets, a non-verbal command for him to leave the moment he’s satisfied her needs. She demands total adherence to every condition of her mere participation in the goings on of the planet, but offers nothing in return. And we want her to survive whatever’s coming?

Even more infuriating is that we get no explanation for any of this behavior until the halfway point of the movie, and even then it’s problematic. I’ll get to that shortly, but it really is unnerving that so much time is spent establishing how god-awful of a person she is, yet the film still insists that we root for her. Everything else from the first 45 minutes is just setting up moments to come later that are painfully obvious. We’re not talking Chekhov’s Gun here, but an entire arsenal. Hell, there’s an absolutely meaningless scene where Angela drinks something from a glass bottle, then sets it precariously on the edge of her kitchen counter, only for the camera to linger on it so that we know it’s there when it inevitably falls off and shatters on the floor a few minutes later to make her jump. It serves no purpose other than what I’m sure is an unintentional one of telling us just how blatant all of our payoffs will be down the road.

So, back to the story, and if you’re upset that I’ve spent so long ignoring it for tangents about Angela, imagine how bad it was to watch. Her job with Amygdala is to manually adjust KIMI’s algorithm whenever an error occurs. This is how the personal assistant differs from its counterparts, as explained by CEO Bradley Hasling (Derek DelGuadio) in an opening expository zoom interview. KIMI has a literal human element that can be corrected, rather than self-altering code. There is the briefest inquiry about the implications of this system, as it essentially creates a delayed surveillance state via a corporate entity, but bafflingly, it’s never really explored. Instead, we see Angela performing more mundane tasks like writing lines of code to explain slang terms to the system, or to enable it to recognize a request for “Me” by Taylor Swift as a call for an individual track rather than creating a personalized Taylor Swift playlist for the user. Again, an interesting avenue for commentary – if nothing else than to show that anyone who would request that song should have their tech access limited to a baby’s teething ring – but again, it’s just a demonstration of the most basic capabilities of the app, coupled with jokes about how it always responds with its trademark, “I’m here” every time you say the name, regardless of context. I mean, who would want to truly understand the thing that the movie’s named after, right?

One day, while clearing her log of erroneous streams, Angela comes across a recording of loud music, through which she can faintly hear what appears to be a woman screaming. Using a closet full of audio equipment that is definitely not part of her work station but is given no explanation for its existence, she’s able to isolate the people talking, revealing what she believes to be a violent crime on the level of sexual assault and murder.

Determined to help, she forwards the audio on to coworkers and supervisors (played by Andy Daly and Alex Dobrenko), who warn her about the danger inherent in what she’s doing, because she’s asserting criminal behavior well outside the purview of her job, herself using questionably legal means to do so. Speaking to Terry, he advises her to call the FBI, but she won’t do so until the person in charge of handling sensitive matters at Amygdala (Wilson) convinces her to come into the office and have a meeting with a third party who will contact the authorities.

When she finally ventures out of her house, scuttling around like a fugitive to avoid people as she makes her way to Amygdala headquarters, Angela is dismayed by the fact that she has to go through a retinal scan to get in, even though she never gave one to her employers in any official capacity that she’s aware of. Once again, a good point for exploration, but instead it’s another hand-wave joke about not reading the terms and conditions of the app.

The meeting with her boss does not go well, as she requests that Angela simply turn over the data she’s recorded and reneges on the third party due to a semantic technicality. When asked why Angela is so sure of what she heard, she initially uses the same line she’s used in multiple situations up to now, “because I said it was,” before revealing the real motivator for all her actions thus far, that she was the victim of a sexual assault and her attacker got away with it. All those monstrously illogical decisions and inexcusable behaviors for the past 40 minutes was building up to a #MeToo moment, which defeats its own purpose because it renders Angela as an unreliable narrator.

While the suits trying to find ways to dismiss the issue to avoid negative PR ahead of the IPO is an all-too real and sad statement on corporate America, it is once again a bit of one-off lip service to issues that need full explorations. But setting that aside, the questions Angela is asked are reasonable ones in a vacuum. Essentially she’s being asked to provide proof of a situation that, let’s face it, is imagined based on an audio recording, and instead of sharing that evidence (even on her own terms) all she’ll say is, “I said so,” and insist that it be enough, even though her assertion holds absolutely no weight, because she has no established credibility. She turns out to be right, because the movie needs her to be right in order to happen, but the case is far from ironclad. And given her personal history and accompanying intransigence, she ends up tacitly admitting to a bias that prevents her from being objective in this situation. As such, the first half of the film feels completely wasted, and I kind of want the character to have some comeuppance for the time suck.

Anyway, once all that bullshit is out of the way, the actual movie happens, with Angela being pursued by “thugs” (seriously, that’s how they’re credited; there are like, five named characters other than Angela) and assassins using surveillance technology and hacking abilities to track her down, attempting to silence her before she can go public. Imagine how futile this would be if she had just called the FBI right from the off as Terry suggested? This leads to an intriguing climax where Angela suddenly has to become a badass of self-defense, and cleverly use the established props to save herself.

If this were the entire film, I would have loved it, but unfortunately, we spent way too much time learning everything we never wanted to know about Angela (almost none of which is relevant to the story’s resolution) to establish nearly enough about the stakes of the situation, how KIMI truly factors in, or what facets of technology are useful for good, evil, and everything in between. We don’t even get enough time to enjoy the fact that in a climax that revolves around a staged home invasion, Angela’s peril is joined by her other peeping tom neighbor, played by Devin Ratray, best known as Buzz from Home Alone, and his name is KEVIN! That’s a great meta reference, especially considering the outcome of the story, but there’s no time to give it any meaningful attention.

In most cases, a 90-minute chase thriller would be just the right tempo, executed at a breakneck pace to match the digital speed of the tech that endangers and redeems Angela. Instead, we got a character study for someone who in hindsight didn’t deserve one, leaving us to rush through the end so fast that when it was over, I literally exclaimed, “Wait, that’s it?!” No explanation for how the crime was recorded (there’s a montage that implies a cause, but nothing concrete), no tangible connective tissue between the victim and the perpetrators (again, just a verbal statement that we’re supposed to assume is true), no background on the assassin (Jaime Camil) who sounds like Tommy Wiseau, no reason for Angela’s nameless mother (Robin Givens) to exist other than as a cheap ex machina to trigger the ending. Normally I’d be happy for a movie like this, one that knows what it needs to do and gets it done efficiently. Here, I was more thankful about how mercifully short the movie was given how little substance it cared to delve into. There are so many good ideas here, but just like his disastrous turn directing the Oscars last year, Steven Soderbergh decided to put all his eggs in one flashy basket hoping it would pay dividends, and it most certainly did not.

Grade: C-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How reliant are you on your tech? Seriously, why wouldn’t she just call the feds? Let me know!

9 thoughts on “Manic Pixie Stream Girl – KIMI

  1. I was taken aback that you judged the main character as an “objectively horrible person” even while recognizing that she was coded as autistic. You then go on to complain that nothing explains why this character behaves in these socially abrasive ways, yet you also noted the keychain that was meant to indicate her autism diagnosis. The tone of your review suggests that you believe people with disabilities, in this case autism and agoraphobia are lesser. I hope this is not the case and this is just a bad take. Just because someone has poor social skills as a result of developmental disability does not make them a bad person or unlikable.

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    1. I will confirm your hopes. What you presume about me is not the case, and your take is indeed bad. My complaint is that all we get for an explanation of Angela’s behavior is a blink-and-you-miss-it look at the keychain before a one-line justification midway through. And even if we’re meant to take that in the most sympathetic terms, it is not nearly enough information to contextualize her behavior. Autism is a spectrum, after all. There is not one catch-all diagnosis, and again, nothing she says or does connects to it in any concrete way. Instead it’s meant as a cheap “Get Out of Jail Free” card, like we’re supposed to see all of her horrible actions and then say, “Oh, the keychain. Well, it’s alright, then.” No, it’s not. People with disabilities are not “lesser,” nor can their disorder be used as an excuse with no context. People are still responsible for their actions. Take me for instance. I’m partly colorblind. I have trouble occasionally seeing traffic and crossing signs. Does that give me free reign to beat the piss out of someone who honks at me if I accidentally jaywalk? Of course not. It’s completely disproportionate to whatever’s going on with me, and even if it wasn’t, it’s still socially, morally, ethically, and/or legally unacceptable. That’s Angela. Whether she’s coded as autistic or not is irrelevant. Her actions are not justified, and what minor allusions we do get in lieu of actual exposition are flimsy and insufficient to excuse her behavior. A keychain does not give her a pass, nor should it.

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      1. You misunderstood, I was calling your take bad but that’s OK, you are entitled to having movie opinions I think are wrong. I’m relieved you’re not a bigot but I would still like to encourage you to check your attitude here. First, let me clarify that the keychain isn’t there to excuse her behavior, merely to provide context for it. Nor am I saying that people with disabilities aren’t responsible for their behavior. What I am asking of you, and I would argue the film is asking the same, is to show some empathy for their experiences. Let me ask you this, what do you find so objectionable about her behavior? She is short with people, yes, but that’s hardly equivalent to beating someone up for honking at you which was your example. Further, the people in her life seem unbothered by it. They all accept that as just who she is. Most people who have autistic friends or family make this accommodation easily. I guess I’m curious because I found it easy to empathize and root for this character (and this also would have been true without the added context of the keychain) while your reaction was to judge her which made it harder for you to connect with the film. We’ve already established its not because you hold some sort of bigotry in your heart, so what was it that led you to such a judgy take on this character? Just something to ask yourself.

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      2. I mean, where to start. She spies on her neighbors, which is objectively creepy. She even judges them as she does it, including the neighbor opposite who is also spying and happens to help save her life later on. That’s not only objectionable, but it sends a weird message from the filmmakers themselves. She agrees to meet Byron Bowers, then stands him up with no explanation. When he comes over that night, she bites his head off for entering the building without buzzing first, even though the front door was open (everyone does this, especially delivery drivers) and he didn’t enter her actual apartment without knocking. No social norms have been violated, nor have any stated agreements between the two of them, but she chews him out, only to then fuck him and dismiss him the moment he tries to engage with her in any way. I’d assert that Terry is decidedly bothered by it. That’s why when she interrupted his work the next day, he was frank and honest about how upset he was, noting that they could talk about it later, but he’d be in court and unavailable. Bear this in mind when she calls him multiple times during the chase and acts like it’s his fault that he’s not at her beck and call even though he gave her adequate notice. She demands that the construction upstairs occur only on her terms, the livelihood of the contractor and his workers be damned. She insists that her dentist give her drugs that he tells her won’t help because she patently refuses his medical advice to come in for a needed root canal. She is late for her therapy session then lies to abruptly end it the moment said therapists challenges her to confront ANY of her issues. And that’s just the stuff I can think of off the top of my head, because I’m sure as hell not watching this again.

        Empathy only goes so far. And for it to work, she has to show some degree of nuance or redemptive qualities. She does not. In fact, it’s incredible how little flexibility or empathy she’s willing to show others, and yet she expects full compliance in return for nothing. At some point you have to make at least a visible effort to better yourself, and she doesn’t do that. Maybe there are hints of it to the camera, but she certainly doesn’t show it to any of the other characters. Insisting you’re smarter than the people who are PAID to help you and refusing their help because you magically know better despite all evidence to the contrary does not invite any empathy or sympathy. Quite the opposite. The more it builds it just accelerates the moment where a reasonable person would say, “Okay, I’m done with you.” If there were any real attempts to deal with her issues or a solitary act of contrition, I might have been willing to engage, but there wasn’t. And that’s not a problem with Zoe Kravitz, but of Steven Soderbergh not giving us a compelling character.

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      3. I might come back later and make a longer comment addressing some of your specific criticisms of the film and maybe some of your broader ideas about what it takes to empathize with a flawed protagonist but first let me ask you about your take on Rear Window which I’m sure you noticed Kimi is a version of. Granted, Rear Window is a masterpiece while Kimi is admittedly not but I’m wondering if you were equally creeped out by Jimmy Stewart’s characters voyeurism and found it hard to root for him? Maybe because Stewart’s disability is visible it makes it easier to look past his problematic behavior and take that empathetic leap? Or maybe it’s that Hitchcock’s filmmaking brilliance is the difference? I guess you might have a contrarian opinion on Rear Window but that would shock me.

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      4. To me it’s almost an apples/oranges comparison, as Hitchcock was much more about atmosphere while Soderbergh is more action-oriented. There are certainly shared elements, though thankfully this isn’t a straight-up remake/ripoff like Disturbia. In Hitchcock’s film (admittedly it’s been a LONG time since I’ve seen it, so forgive me if I flub some details), I remember Jefferies getting a good amount of exposition and establishment around his character to explain away some of his actions. He’s a photojournalist, which explains his inquisitive nature, eventually leading to his full-on voyeurism after the inciting incident, which also fuels his paranoia. He doesn’t start out creeping on his neighbors, rather just people watching out his window, and then it evolves into the creep factor, which is cleverly used to blur the lines between his ethics and morality, and enhances the confirmation bias of everything he sees. Angela’s depiction has no such subtlety. Her active spying starts right from the off as if it’s part of her morning routine, and there’s no established reason for it. While not exactly satisfying, Jefferies’ injury (not disability) and isolationist ennui at least provides a blatant context. I probably should watch Rear Window again just to refamiliarize myself with it (it’s literally been 20 years or more since I’ve seen it) and reassess, but my gut feeling watching it the first time was that we are given concrete reasons for why he acts the way he does, and we get them fairly early on, whereas with Kimi we’re left to wonder why she acts in such horrific ways towards other people, and our only payoff is that briefest of looks at the keychain and the eventual tossed-off line about her past assault more than halfway through the film. The big difference between the two characters from a plot perspective is that Rear Window is largely about Jefferies trying to prove he’s right and getting increasingly unhinged in that process. With Kimi, Angela simply insists that she’s right without evidence, and because the movie can’t happen otherwise, she turns out to be right as more of a tangent to the main story. The visibility of the injury has nothing to do with it. Jefferies actually shows us through words and actions why he should be believed. Angela just demands it.

        At least, that’s my recollection. I could be wrong. But I do want to watch Rear Window again now, so thank you for that if nothing else.

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      5. I also want to watch Rear Window again because it has been awhile for me too. Do a blog piece on it, I would suggest. I’d read it for whatever it’s worth. And I think it will be fun to have Kimi fresh because I’m confident Soderberg has studied that film among many others and imagined his film as in direct conversation with that one.

        I liked Kimi quite a bit more than you, but it’s not like I regard as great. I think one big maybe even overwhelming reason I had a more positive reaction is because I often work with autistic people including folks who have had anxiety disorders which is not that uncommon and this main character felt familiar in a way to me. I understood her struggles and empathized quickly with her. The film did not need to provide me with much context. I saw the puzzle piece keychain and read it as a crucial piece of exposition and was thankful the film didn’t waste any more time on it. People don’t go around talking about being autistic all the time, they just live their life like the main character is shown doing. I thought the film’s solution with the keychain was elegant. I thought the way the worker and the dentist responded to the main character with exaspertstion but not anger was very well observed. She was being difficult as is also not uncommon. But she is making an effort, the way she has trained herself to say thanks. That’s effort. Trying to go out to meet her booty call for a taco, that’s an enormous effort. But of course she has flaws. She would not be a compelling character without them. But we see her trying to do right on this case, even if she doesn’t know how and the effort to do so is a bigger challenge than anything else she has faced before. That’s a movie protagonist I can get behind. I don’t think the reveal about her traumatic backstory was nessacary but they don’t waste much time on it and it does make sense as a backstory.

        I don’t know how many autistic people you know and as you noted it’s a spectrum so the main character might have felt alien to you even if you have autistic loved ones. You certainly found her offputting. You called her objectively bad. That’s strong language and it rubbed me the wrong way. Also as a style note, objectively is a confusing modifier to bad. By what objective measure? Now, I will concede that the movie could have done a lot more to provide context for viewers who don’t bring their own. I wonder if when you revisit this movie in the future you will have a more positive reaction to it with all the context already in your head and keeping in my mind just how overwhelmingly hostile the world feels to her. Try to empathize with her, and not the wounded boyfriend or exasperated professionals.

        Ok I said my bit. I feel like if I comment again on this topic I’ll just be repeating myself. I’ll see you on the other side of Rear Window.

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