Hand-wringing over the perils of social media does not, refreshingly, factor into Swedish filmmaker Magnus von Horn’s second feature, the unexpectedly nuanced and sensitive Sweat. (If I’d realized before now that his first feature was the deeply unsettling but also similarly complex and compassionate The Here After (Efterskalv), that would have been less surprising.)
Fictional but clearly closely inspired by reality, this is a slice-of-life peek into the world of Warsaw health-and-well-being influencer Sylwia Zajac (Magdalena Kolesnik, a beautiful performance). Her 600,000 Instagram followers are her everything, in the best possible way. The film opens with her leading a loud, bouncy, rowdy, fun exercise class in a shopping mall, cheering on her adoring followers to push themselves, but not too much! Her motto is “Work with the body you have, not the body you want.” That is… pretty radical, for the fitness arena, and pretty compassionate in itself.
Not only does Sylwia come across as real, she actually is the real deal: after the class she spends a long time taking selfies, giving hugs, and chatting with the fans who have come out to the mall to sweat with her and bask in her presence. And there’s never a moment when she’s finally offscreen — because this has all, of course, been livestreamed — when she suddenly deflates, rolls her eyes, or privately disparages her fans. They love her, and she genuinely loves them, and draws her own power and inspiration from them, right back.
But this is merely the setup. Von Horn’s thesis here, if we can call it that, is never that the intimacy of social media is artificial — it obviously is not, and we see it serving authentic human purposes — but that it’s just not enough. The good and the bad that befalls Sylwia over the three days the film tracks follow on from a very vulnerable post she shared online, about how she’d love to have a nice boyfriend in her life. That teary video was a lot more raw than anything she’d shared before, and it sets off a series of events that highlight just how lonely she is, and how it is tearing at her. That video, and what it revealed about the reality of her life, not least to Sylwia herself, will shape her every interaction she has, from a tense birthday party for her mother (Aleksandra Konieczna: Corpus Christi) to several encounters with an online stalker (Zbigniew Zamachowski: Proof of Life) who shows up IRL.
Sweat is a powerfully uncynical movie, and yet also a very pragmatic one, about the seachange human society has endured in the 21st century. Social media is here to stay. This is our culture today. People like Sylwia are our new celebrities. And that’s really not, no pun intended, anything to get too worked up about. Sylwia is honest and unfeigned. We just need to remember that what we see of the likes of her on Instagram is not the totality of her life. We just need to remember that her life is more than what she posts online.