Imagine you’ve hacked into someone else’s phone and are consuming all his texts, videos, Snapchats, and Instagrams in real time. Now imagine that someone is a 15-year-old boy, and you’re watching his life unfold entirely through the lens of an iPhone. That’s the premise behind Pocket, a captivating new short film starring the former Nickelodeon actor Mace Coronel. (Editor’s note: Pocket contains graphic sexual imagery.)
The film, which was shot vertically and is designed to be consumed on mobile, follows Jake Tillner (Coronel) as he navigates school, home, and social life. Parts of Jake’s days look familiar to anyone who has gone through puberty: the awkward social interactions with classmates, a history test, flirting. Throughout it all, Jake’s phone plays an outsize role and acts as the lens through which we see his world unfolding.
Jake uses his phone during school to make memes and videos mocking one of his classmates and share them in a group chat. He cradles it between his legs when he attempts to cheat on an exam. He uses it to escape confrontations with his mother, to frequently watch porn, and to creep on models’ Instagram photos.
To Jake, the phone is an extension of his body. It’s with him 24/7—at one point, he even pauses a shower to check a text. After Instagram-stalking and befriending his crush, Farrah, Jake exchanges sexts with her via Snapchat. But when he sees Farrah in person and finally gets the opportunity to have a conversation with her unmediated by a screen, he can’t.
In 2013, a film titled Noah debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and was heralded as a perfect encapsulation of “the way we receive information and the way we communicate now: constantly, simultaneously, compulsively, endlessly, and more and more often, solitarily.” The 17-minute film takes place entirely on a desktop screen and documents the life of a teenage boy as he grapples with being dumped by his girlfriend. The story is told through Facebook messages, Skype, video games, and Chatroulette. “Noah is unlike anything you’ve seen before in a movie—only because it is exactly like what many of us see on our computers all the time,” Fast Company declared.
Six years later, most teenagers—and many adults—wouldn’t think of touching Facebook, Skype, or any of the other desktop applications featured in Noah: In 2019, our social lives are manifested through our smartphones. Mishka Kornai and Zach Wechter, who directed Pocket, said Noah was a huge inspiration, but “the digital world in 2013 still felt like something we could plug into when we got home,” said Wechter. “Now the digital world comes with us wherever we go.”
That mobile transition has proved difficult for directors to capture—both because the nuances of communication have been upended in the past several years and because the medium has physically transformed. As our social lives are expressed through smaller and smaller screens, capturing daily interactions on film has been a constant challenge for directors. In 2010, the TV series Sherlock began showing text messages on-screen. Later, shows such as Glee and House of Cards followed suit. At the time, text messaging had been a prevalent form of communication for more than a decade, and show writers could no longer simply ignore it or rely on difficult-to-read, over-the-shoulder shots of phone screens.
In 2013, Facebook, then the dominant social platform, appeared more frequently on-screen, but most filmmakers still relied on filming the web version via laptop, or showing screenshots. Films such as Noah, and later Unfriended, Unfriended: Dark Web, and last year’s crime thriller Searching, are all part of a group of films that pioneered telling stories entirely through a desktop interface. While these movies do capture a fuller picture of how intertwined the internet is with our lives, they still rely on a desktop experience, not a mobile one.
Only in the past year or so have TV shows and movies actually made a notable effort to integrate modern, mobile-first social platforms into story lines. Some shows, such as Netflix’s social-media stalker drama You, feature characters scrolling on their phones with their Instagram feed hovering in space. Season 2 of American Vandal centers on an Instagram prankster. The movie Eighth Grade features an aspiring tween vlogger whose social anxiety is exacerbated by platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. Last month, the television show Broad City even kicked off its new season with an episode told entirely through Instagram Stories.
Pocket feels different because it tells the story from the perspective of the phone itself, rather than an outside observer. The film seamlessly bounces the viewer from iMessage to Instagram, to Snapchat, to the selfie camera, to the Notes app, the same way we all bounce around in our normal lives. Kornai and Wechter said that this method of filming allowed them to capture subtleties of digital communication that can be lost on traditional film: the pain of watching typing bubbles appear and then disappear, being left on “seen,” pressing your finger down on a Snapchat photo so you can view it once more before it expires.
Telling stories this way is not easy. Kornai and Wechter had to construct and 3-D-print a custom rig in order to simultaneously record the phone’s screen and the view from the front- and rear-facing cameras. But Kornai says it was worth it: “We’re spending so much time in this digital space, but not enough people are telling stories that are set in that digital world and use the language and the methodology that we’re all immersed in.”
Both Kornai and Wechter said they didn’t think they could have done the plot justice without the extra effort. The directors, both in their 20s, said they wanted to make sure they portrayed teenage life accurately, and telling the story phone-first was a big part of that. “We wanted to explore the ways in which coming of age has been changed and disrupted by technology,” Kornai said. “We’re seeing these age-old impulses and desires and anxieties, but they’re just being expressed in a different way.”