Not all (internet) heroes wear capes. Meet the ‘Super Reviewers’


Got it? OK, now try to remember: Did you read a review before you decided to buy it?

They’re the “Super Reviewers,” if you will. To learn more about who belongs to this very opinionated, extremely online community, filmmakers Yu Gu and Arianna LaPenne profiled three people who each find a unique purpose in the act — dare we say art — of reviewing.

From a California Yelper to a Georgia-based Amazon devotee to a Google Maps explorer, Gu and LaPenne offer a window into the lives of the people whose opinions sway our everyday decisions.

Below is a conversation with the filmmakers on what they found.

CNN: Online reviews have become so essential to the way we live that I bet most of us aren’t aware of how often we consume them. What inspired you to focus on the reviewers themselves?

Arianna LaPenne: Sometimes the most interesting films can be about the things that seem the least important. That’s kind of a note-to-self that I always try to remember. Over the years, I’ve collected strange reviews that I just find joyous to read, because they either 1) completely ignore the generally understood intention of writing reviews; 2) devote such a (high) level of effort that it makes me wonder what else they do in their lives; or 3) go into such shocking level of personal detail that it makes me want to call the reviewer and ask, “What is going on in your life that you’re putting this information in a review for a coffee shop?”

Online reviews are a window into people’s lives; they expose a need to share and connect in a way that we would never imagine is the motivation behind a review of a product or service.

CNN: As Shankar Vedantam explains in the film, the population of super reviewers is really tiny. How did you find your film’s central characters?

Yu Gu: We knew we wanted to find people who were highly prolific, among the top-ranked of each platform. But it wasn’t just about the stats and identifying the GOATs. We were also looking for a certain attitude, a compulsive drive; people who didn’t treat this as just a hobby.

Thankfully, many people agreed to meet (with) us over video calls. We talked to amazing reviewers from all over the United States, of varying ages and backgrounds.

Antoinette P. likes to joke that her prolific Amazon reviews have made her famous ... if only on that website.

Antoinette P., who is an Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer, had a gusto and unique way of navigating the world that struck us immediately.

Tony C. gained his Yelp Elite status by always looking for a new, unreviewed locale to try.

Tony C., a Yelp Elite, was in his garage when he first met us over Zoom, seeking a momentary reprieve from his dad duties, lit with a single ceiling bulb surrounded by darkness.

Denise and her boyfriend, Dave, in a scene from "Super Reviewers."

And Denise B., who’s a Level 10 Google Maps Local Guide, joined us from her RV, laughing at her boyfriend Dave’s offhand comments just out of frame.

Much of these interactions left a big impression and inspired us for the film.

CNN: Through their stories, we see how writing online reviews can be filled with meaning, from offering validation to a sense of purpose in life. Did you expect to encounter these motivations when you selected this project or were you surprised by the stories you uncovered?

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ALP: Completely surprised. Before we found our characters, I thought this would be a sort of jokey, lighthearted comedic documentary. I knew there were some overzealous folks out there, but I had no idea that so much passion and purpose was behind reviewing. In retrospect, it makes sense. Any form of self-expression is about claiming a place for yourself in the world. And that’s deep, existential stuff!

YG: While researching characters, I recalled one of the only reviews I’ve written. I felt so indignant and wronged that I needed to take to Yelp and berate a neighborhood spot I’d frequented for years. How did something as trivial as being charged for less ice in my coffee strike such a nerve in me? And what was that nerve for our main characters?

We had our hunches, but we weren’t quite prepared for the complexity and poignancy that our characters shared with us. Each person found their way to reviewing as an outlet for a deep and often intractable conflict in their life. This was not a hobby, but part of their life’s work.

CNN: We never see these individuals interact with one another — and they’re all using different platforms to share reviews — but there’s also the sense that they’re part of a micro-community. Do you think being a “super reviewer” is an opportunity for connection? Why or why not?

YG: In our interview with Vedantam, he discussed the idea that humans long to stand out from the crowd, yet also crave to fit into a tribe. In our contemporary life, where our digital relationships outnumber in-person relationships — now exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic — we’re all transposing that conflicting social need into the online space. Many of the platforms like Yelp and Google Maps are designed to drive both these impulses. They’re social platforms where you can create a personal profile, add friends and follow others, but there’s also a ranked hierarchy of reviewers.

In our research, we found that these social and interactive elements meant great business for the platforms, but for our characters, they were great sources of meaning. Tony grew up sheltered in a Southern Californian Asian enclave, obeying his parents and their version of the model minority myth. Writing reviews as an adult was about finding his voice, for the first time being recognized for his talent and sticking it to the predominately White male establishment of food critics.

Denise was invited to a Google Local Guides conference where she met 200 other people from around the world who were exactly like her. Though she’s a self-proclaimed nomad in her RV, she keeps in touch with the other Local Guides weekly at online workshops and meet-ups.

Antoinette is on the spectrum, and she shared with us that reviewing is not really about human connection for her. She wages a daily battle with Meniere’s disease, a condition that doesn’t allow her to work a regular job. Reviewing is about sharing knowledge as a way to recover her independence and autonomy.

CNN: This is also co-directed. Did you learn any lessons on how to establish a collaborative creative experience that holds space for both creators?

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YG: Even though we met for the first time while making this film, this was not our first rodeo. Collaborating meant that we both needed to acknowledge and respect each other’s past experiences, not only in filmmaking but also as humans with similarities and differences. The process for me was about striking a balance between my own instincts and aligning with each other. This back and forth also allowed for unexpected discoveries and directions that were more than the sum of its parts. There are so many toxic norms in our industry. Each opportunity to make a film for me is also a chance to chip away at those problematic practices.

ALP: We tend to mythologize the role of director. Especially in the world of fiction filmmaking, which is where I started. It’s sort of a dictatorship of vision. It’s effective in many ways because making a film is hard and human beings, as a species, like leaders. But there are inherent problems as well. Co-directing disrupts the traditional system of a singular vision. It demands compromise and collaboration, which are great things! Even better, it adds more good ideas to the pot; one person doesn’t have a monopoly on all the best ideas in the world.

CNN: For the uninitiated, what’s the draw of short films? Are there any favorites you would recommend?

YG: I love short documentaries because they’re a little jolt of excitement, one twirl on a roller coaster ride, a fast dip into deep waters. As a filmmaker, there’s more room to play, and there’s an inherent rigor to creating a complete experience in a short span of time. As a Canadian, I have to shout out the classic “New Shoes” by Ann Marie Fleming, which in five short minutes packs a real punch (content warning for violence). The experimental short documentary “F**ked Like a Star” by Stefani Saintonge is an adaptation of an extract from a Toni Morrison novel; it’s really refreshing and beautiful. I’m also finding short gems in an online collection of ’90s Asian-American films, “My Sight is Lined with Visions,” curated by Abby Sun and Keisha N. Knight.
ALP: Short form is revolutionizing content. You see it in fiction television as well; shows keep getting shorter! If I can just throw in one short doc that I love it’s “While I Yet Live.” I saw it screened at a documentary meet-up group called The Video Consortium, which has chapters all over the world. I was transfixed by how beautiful this film is in sound and visuals, and there’s a poetry to the speech and abstract images. It’s about a small, dying community in the very rural South of the United States. And it does that thing that docs can do so well, and which we hope to do here in our film, which is really let you into a world.

CNN: I’d imagine that one of the hardest aspects of short filmmaking is editing. Would you agree? What is that distillation process like for you?

ALP: Oh my God, yes. Many thanks to Brian Redondo, our editor on this film. The hardest thing might have been sticking to a strict run time of 25 minutes for television. It meant we had to be extremely picky about every single line and moment in the film. The three of us had long debates for hours about individual sentences. Everything had to count. And not only in the sense of, “Is this moment interesting?” but also, “What does this moment say about the character? How does it fit into the larger themes? Does it make sense with the scene next to it?” So, there’s a lot of Tetris in editing. And, naturally, a lot of opinions about the Tetris — but I think, long game, that was actually to the benefit of the film.

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CNN: Scheme Engine, the creative partner on these shorts, highlights and celebrates BIPOC stories. How do you think “Super Reviewers” fits into that mission?

YG: Though “Super Reviewers” isn’t directly about race or diversity, we wanted to have an eclectic mix of characters. The challenge that we set for ourselves was to find unexpected ways in which all of them were connected, while also depicting each character in their unique circumstances.

Because reviewing as a phenomenon came about with the advent of Web 2.0, its momentum was about destabilizing established systems of criticism that were mostly White and mostly male. So of course there are some great BIPOC stories in this space, and I think Tony and Antoinette’s stories (in “Super Reviewers”) are examples of this.

I also love that you use the word “celebrate” because to us, that not only means how do we craft their stories, but also, how do we include their funny idiosyncrasies and fault lines? A true celebration is an embrace of an entire human being, which is important for any character, but it’s especially urgent for BIPOC characters. Before boarding a flight to shoot for this film, my dad warned me to be careful; he thought I could be in danger of being attacked as an Asian. That’s the unfortunate reality we share right now. We need more stories that are true celebrations.

CNN: What do you hope viewers take away from this project?

ALP: All people want to connect with each other. Even the self-described misanthropes want to be understood. I hope people take away some form of connection to the people on screen. I hope that makes them feel understood, a little less lonely in this big world. Documentaries, ideally, introduce you to places, peoples, things you don’t know about, and foster understanding of them.

YG: Viewers may never meet someone like Denise, or Tony or Antoinette in real life, but I want them to feel like they’ve shared something with them. In our complex and crowded human world, frameworks that categorize and sort people into hierarchies are everywhere, just like the ratings systems that our reviewers use. I’d like viewers to put these away in the little time they spend watching this film, and when it’s done, maybe these frameworks will have shifted in an unexpected way.