Review by Sean Boelman
Cypher won the Grand Jury Prize in the US Narrative Competition at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival despite its mixed reception. It definitely seems as if the jury at the festival valued creative vision over anything else as, despite being undeniably flawed, Chris Mourkabel’s film is on a completely different wavelength, for better or worse.
The movie follows the meteoric rise of musician Tierra Whack, who first gained recognition by posting videos on YouTube but soon gained recognition from some of the biggest names in the music industry. However, the interesting part of the story is how Whack begins to discover some of the mysterious and dark undercurrents of the music industry.
For someone who isn’t particularly familiar with Whack’s work — with only a passing awareness of her music — Cypher is nonetheless an interesting portrait of the artist. At its core, the film is an underdog story — a rags-to-riches tale. Yet, there are levels of moral complexity and ambiguity here that, while not always effective, are consistently intriguing.
If there is one big issue with the film, it’s that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say. The movie’s explorations of the cost of fame are interesting, but nothing that other films haven’t said more effectively. And when it comes to the conspiracy theory aspects of the story, it’s unclear whether the movie is condemning the music industry or the people who have proposed these strange ideas.
At under an hour and twenty minutes in length, the film breezes by rather quickly. However, the story does begin to lose its focus heading into the second half. As the line between fiction and reality becomes even more blurred than it was before, so too does its approach to genre and tone — creating a pretty severe case of tonal whiplash.
The movie’s approach to character is certainly interesting. Viral musician Tierra Whack is playing a fictionalized version of herself, and like many cases in which celebrities take this approach, the portrayal is complicated. Of course, it can’t be too exaggerated or else she risks people thinking this is the “real” her, but there are certain liberties that are taken.
The film boasts some impressive technical aspects, particularly when it comes to its mockumentary approach. The footage that was created to replicate the types of guerilla and fly-on-the-wall footage one would see in a behind-the-scenes music doc is thoroughly convincing — some of the best this side of I’m Still Here.
Cypher might not be one of the best movies of the festival, but it is certainly one of the most unique. Chris Moukarbel’s vision is certainly idiosyncratic, and while some might be put off by the somewhat scattered nature of the narrative, it’s hard not to admire the movie for what it was trying to do.
Cypher screened at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, which ran June 7-18 in NYC and June 19 through July 2 online.