By Sheroog Kubur, December 6 2022—
There’s a specific kind of patronage involved in watching a documentary about someone who already documents their entire life online. Girl Gang was the film to tap into this patronage. It offers a glimpse into the life of Leonie Balys, or Leo, a 14-year-old influencer from Germany. While the film was only meant to be a snippet into her life, it raises questions about the nature of influencer stardom and what effect it has on young girls.
The film’s premise is quite simple — follow around this influencer over the course of her career to provide insight into the influencer life. At the start of the documentary, Leo is 14 and celebrating her reaching 500,000 Instagram followers. It highlights the actual machine that goes into her career, including her manager parents and how they support her on this journey.
Beyond this premise, the film is almost disturbing to bear witness to. The viewer watches Leo try to maintain authenticity while her and her family’s fabrications are put on display. She is portrayed as almost bratty in some moments, lashing out at her father for not getting the right shot or complaining about no one understanding how much work goes into her Instagram feed. These are cut between shots of her rehearsing Tik Toks dancing to popular audios or filming Instagram stories to promote her newest brand deal — all while she’s grinning from ear to ear. It’s a jarring juxtaposition, and the audience can’t help but feel like her attempts at authenticity are falling flat.
The film also follows a member of the “Leooarmy,” Melanie. She is just a year younger than her idol and reveres her greatly, admonishing her seemingly perfect life and waiting for the day when she is finally able to meet her in person. Melanie’s perspective reminds the audience of something that can be easily lost on the viewer — these are kids. Melanie screams in excitement when Leo joins her Instagram live and shakes and cries when she loses access to her fanpage account, both very passionate and juvenile reactions. By the end of the film, when she decides to shut down her page and meet with a friend she was introduced to through her fanpage, the audience sees the evolution that’s inevitable with fans of influencers.
However, it’s not lost on the viewer that Leo is surrounded by branding and marketing, to the extent of garnering an online harassment campaign against her. The documentary shows clips of two online drama personalities, each highlighting controversies she’s been in. The two hosts are disgustingly aggressive towards a 14-year-old, calling her a cunt for a poor marketing attempt and accusing her parents of child exploitation. It’s incredibly odd to see grown men mocking this child, offering insight into the more public hate she may experience.
While she’s attempting to create authenticity, she’s seen sporting the brands she has deals with and is always within the view of one of her brand partners. This includes a shot of her father driving through a McDonald’s drive-through to buy products for a brand deal they’re filming or her asking about which brands she is allowed to wear in her stories. It gives the impression that her life is an extension of her social media presence — one big advertisement.
The documentary was harrowing to witness. It offered insight into her life but did nothing to humanize Leo. She was always depicted as being on her cell phone with a scowl, furiously editing photos or TikToks to post. It’s hard to remember that she was just 14 at the start of the film. Leo still maintains a sizable following, currently sitting at 1.6 million followers on Instagram and 1.4 million on TikTok. While her page and content have grown and matured with her, you can’t help but remember the shots of her admitting to having no friends or skipping school for media appearances while scrolling through her feed, wondering if it was all worth it.