This review originally ran January 23, 2022, for the film’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
The rise of the youth-favored app TikTok in the last few years would seem to provide material for a comedy about American materialism and thirst for popular attention, but director Shalini Kantayya’s wide-ranging documentary “TikTok, Boom.” lets us see that this story is actually more like the ominous basis for a kind of thriller about how the Chinese government might be harvesting data about young users throughout the world.
It all began in 2012 with Zhang Yiming, a Chinese internet entrepreneur who — from humble beginnings in a dreary, Ikea-furnished office — created Douyin, an app on which Chinese youth posted videos and got some very capitalist opportunities to take money to shill for products. One young male user was paid to talk up Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but later in the film he tells us that the app will not allow anyone to post who has tattoos or has their hair dyed colors like blue or pink. This strikes to the heart of the tension in modern China between free market ideas and the draconian censorship impulses of the government.
Douyin was merged with Musical.ly, and from these two apps came TikTok. Douyin was supposed to be kept for Chinese use while TikTok would be exported everywhere else, and it caught on fairly quickly. Kantayya’s focus is less on pop stars (like Lil Nas X) who have hit it big through the service and more on the young female users who are ambivalent about the app but reluctant to give up its power and reach.
Feroza Aziz is a teenaged girl of Afghani descent who always felt like an outcast at school in a post-9/11 atmosphere, and TikTok allowed her to find friendlier allies. We see her at home with her parents, and at one point at the dinner table she says of a plate of food, “How’d you make it look pretty? It looks like an Instagram picture.” This comment pegs her as what the film calls a “digital native,” meaning that Aziz has never experienced a world not dominated by an online representation of it.
But Aziz is fully aware of her own predicament, and in the most exciting section of “TikTok, Boom.” she manages to briefly beat the TikTok system at its own game. When Aziz tries to post a video on TikTok about oppression of her people in China, it is soon deleted and all she sees is a black box. Rather than give up, she goes through with a cleverly subversive idea: She posts a video of herself giving tips about how to curl your eyelashes that 10 seconds later pivots to a message about the oppression in China, and then goes right back to the eyelashes at the end.
Deja Foxx’s story is more complicated. Foxx gained fame on the app when she confronted a GOP senator over cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, and she pulled herself out of poverty by using TikTok to promote causes she believes in. But it became clear to Foxx very quickly that posts in which she was scantily clad got more views, and so she tried to strike a difficult balance between celebrating her own sexuality without exploiting it outright.
Popular users get a lot of love from millions of fans on TikTok, but of course they also get a lot of hate. We see some of the positive and negative comments that Foxx gets on TikTok, and one of the negative ones from a user called Becky A is blunt: “I hope you get raped and killed,” it reads. Learning how to deal with a stranger writing something like that to you is extremely difficult, and Foxx goes to a therapist who advises her to delete her social media accounts, but that is not a possibility for her. Her presence on TikTok is how she pays her bills, and she is too deeply involved in it.
Both Aziz and Foxx and some of other more self-aware users on TikTok realize that they are trapped by the app, in a sense, but as Aziz proved there are sometimes ways around that, or ways to make it work out to your advantage. The end of “TikTok, Boom.” is by definition a cliffhanger because the app continues to thrive in spite of a proposed ban on it by the petulant former president, who actually attempted to make money off a proposed sale of TikTok that was finally blocked when the Chinese government passed a law stating that their apps could not be sold to other countries.
The story of TikTok is still being written, but it will certainly provide ample material for comedies, thrillers and sociopolitical analysis in the years to come, and this movie is an engrossing opening salvo.
“TikTok, Boom.” airs Oct. 24 on PBS’ “Independent Lens.”