Written by Dean Orion
Directed by Vanessa Parise
PopFan is an amazing Lifetime flick that gives a truly disturbing take on the obsessive fan. It rises far above being simply a gender-swapped Misery to become a twisted tale of mental illness, obsession, and a critique of pop stars sexing up their image in an attempt to escape a squeaky clean background.
Chelsea Kane plays the pop princess Ava Maclaine is a pop star who is Miley Cyrus. Her hobbies are living life and partying, which means getting drunk and getting crunk. Ava has just put out her latest video and song, featuring a sexed up music video (yet still far less racy than you’ll see in many pop star’s videos!) She still has her boyfriend from her child-friendly days, Curtis Flemming, who has gone on to become a boring investment banker. Curtis is not in the mood to put up with her crazy party antics anymore, so Ava decides to make him jealous by dancing with a hot guy. And a hot girl! All of this is filmed on multiple cell phones, including the resulting fight with Curtis. Curtis congratulates her on making a video that will top her music video in views.
Ava then takes a long drive in the country to try to relax and think and write songs. She eventually ends up in Maine, and pumping her own gas. Or at least attempting to, she has help from a friendly service employee named Xavier. He warns here there is a Nor’easter coming and driving soon won’t be safe, but she continues anyway. Soon it is pouring rain and her car spins out and off the road. She awakens in a bed, with Xavier bringing her food and explaining he pulled her out of her burning car.
This alone is obviously creepy. By the next day, Xavier reveals they are in a lighthouse, and there is no phone line, no cell phone reception, and no internet. And the weather is still terrible, so they are trapped there. Xavier seems friendly, showing off the lighthouse and the work he’s been doing to the place. But he still has a creepy vibe. It soon comes apparent that he’s not all together mentally. He is physically insistent she not go into a certain room. His mood changes suddenly and dramatically. He keeps making excuses as to why they can’t go somewhere so she can contact her family to let them know she’s okay.
Xavier sees Ava’s insistence on trying to find a way to contact anyone on the outside as a betrayal. He sees her as the pop star persona she’s been using, arguing with her when she dismisses her hit song as not that good compared to others on the album. She drugs him one night, and discovers a creepy shrine to her in the forbidden room, complete with selfies taken with her unconscious body. She finds a conveniently labeled folder that is filled with rejection letters from the military, showing he had been lying about his service in Afghanistan. Later when he goes to shower, she grabs his keys and tries to escape in his truck. But as the truck is an older model and she doesn’t know to use the choke, he grabs her and ties her up in bed.
And then things get really creepy.
The shots of the people filming Ava and Curtis’ fight at the party are presented in a way that makes the attention disturbing, and it won’t be the only time that video is used to make the audience feel ill at ease. Xavier rants and raves about how Ava betrayed his trust, how these other pop princesses would never do that. He’s adamant that Ava will have to make it up to him. Somehow. He decides that she will make her own music video for him, that will be an improvement over her other sexy video. “Take off your shirt,” he demands.
This scene is where a female director can make a difference. What could have shot as disturbing but exploitative with Ava writhing around against her will is instead treated entirely as disturbing and the opposite of sexual. The camera isn’t lingering on Ava’s body as she’s forced to hike up her shirt and dance around, there is no male gaze here. Ava’s forced dance is partially seen through the lens of the camera Xavier is using to film it, the result is just as disturbing as the reality. Xavier is so far gone he doesn’t recognize what is going on, or no longer cares that it has become abhorrent. There is even a twerking reference as Xavier focuses on her rear, Ava still moving as requested, years of practice making it second nature despite her protests.
This is one of the best non-exploitative exploitative scenes I’ve seen done in a film. You can read all sorts of things into it. Is the sequence how fans see the stars and exploit their bodies in their minds? Or does it mirror how studios and managers manipulate their talent and treat them like commodities? It does all those things, and mirrors the filming of the argument from the party by spectators earlier in the film. The camera and the spotlight are the villains, though they intrude into the life of the pop star who has invited fame into her life, and thus the attention of the cameras. Things can escalate out of control fast.
Ava is not alone, she managed to get a garbled voicemail message out to her boyfriend Curtis, who goes searching for her with her manager, Damon. They even manage to find the lighthouse, though Xavier feigns ignorance and the rescue attempt then goes bad. Instead of heroes riding to the rescue, Ava will be forced to be her own hero.
PopFan keeps up the creep with Xavier becoming more and more unhinged as the captivity continues. He’s built up a persona of Ava, has a belief that they are connected, and doesn’t process (or just discards) the obvious discomfort of Ava. The fantasy is constantly being twarted by Ava acting as an actual human being and not a pop character created for public consumption. Xavier declares that 100 million fans have decided that she is a certain way, so it must be so. He does pick up on things, such as her relationship with Curtis isn’t going to go anywhere in the future because she doesn’t tell him what’s really going on in her life.
With his erratic mood swings, you never know just how far Xavier will go. That element of unpredictableness logarithmically ramps up his danger. It’s a fantastic portrayal by Nolan Gerard Funk, jumping from nice guy to wacked out nuts to every step in between. He’s also shirtless for a good portion of the last act, which means maybe instead of male gaze, we got us some female gaze going on in here! My favorite bits are when he’s taunting Curtis, who has been specifically designed to be someone who no longer works as a partner to Ava nor has a job that elicits audience sympathy. Yet, you still don’t want Xavier to do bad things to him.
Chelsea Kane is amazing. As Chelsea Kane was the best part of the Bratz movie (and was an aspiring singer), I’ve adjusted my head canon into making PopFan a sequel to Bratz. And if you don’t like my head canon, I will fire my head cannon, which is an actual cannon I keep on the top of my head to shoot at my enemies. Kane effortlessly pulls off being a conflicted former child artist attempting to transition to adulthood via risqué material while dealing with her songwriting work not being appreciated as much as how she wiggles her body parts. Combine that with juxtaposition of going through the motions of the dance movies while being scared and upset at your kidnapper and tormentor films while egging you on and Chelsea Kane has hit a grand slam of awesome. Special shout-out to Danny Wattley as the manager Damon, just because he delivers the line “Ava, diva down now” with a straight face!
PopFan is just great, you should catch the first reairing you can find, even if it is at 3 am on a Tuesday. Set your alarm clock, no time for Tivo! Okay, maybe not that big of an emergency. But for someone who only watches the best of tv movies, PopFan is the fine wine you’ve been looking for. So bottoms up!
Rated 8/10 (video, looks familiar, test keys, shotgun shells, layers of glowing rectangles, there was a lighthouse in this movie, freaky candles, is there hidden treasure inside?)
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