Use Me, filmmaker Julian Shaw’s feature directorial debut purposefully blurs the line between reality and fiction. A study of our addiction to manufactured reality – be it in the form of living out our darkest fetishes or viewing life through the prism of a camera – its titillating story is told in a documentary format, with real-life public personalities cast as themselves. Reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, which starred porn star Sasha Grey as an escort, Shaw’s film features Ceara Lynch, a comparatively famous online “mental humiliatrix.” While he may lack Soderbergh’s experience, confidence, assured narrative grip and style – and he really mucks it up in the film’s final third – Shaw does display signs of real talent here, taking a look at the ramifications of said addiction.
Our handsome, chisel-jawed protagonist Julian (Shaw) embarks on a quest that takes him from Sydney, Australia to Portland, Oregon, to document the “real” Ceara that hides behind her sexually-charged, virtual dominatrix veneer. She seems down-to-earth at first, sharp-witted and intelligent, with chickens in her backyard. As it turns out, she also sells used Kleenexes, urine, dirty socks and hair from her brush to forlorn, compulsive men. “I sold my s**t recently to a guy for four thousand dollars,” she says nonchalantly, in what her lawyer calls “a triumph of capitalism.” Moreover, men “get off” on letting Ceara spend their money, masochistically “ruining” themselves to “reach paradise.” She lives by a strict set of rules, of course – no nudity, no in-person meetings – her whole “brand is that she’s unattainable.” “I’m holier than thou,” she proclaims. “I’m a goddess, and if I get naked, that’s like giving it up.”
“Our handsome, chisel-jawed protagonist embarks on a quest … to document the ‘real’ Ceara that hides behind her sexually-charged, virtual dominatrix veneer.”
Ceara’s a therapist, a means to escape and release, a fantasy come-to-life, a friend and a virtual lover. She’s also not adverse to raucous, Las Vegas orgies. Obsessed with capturing every living moment on camera (bypassing creepiness into psycho territory), Julian – who recently broke up with girlfriend Rose (Sarah Armanious) and consequently emptied his savings account for this project – quickly gets sucked into Ceara’s salacious lifestyle, utterly enamored of her. In order to keep funding his doc, he and Ceara initiate a Kickstarter campaign for “Use Me, a real-life thriller,” which leads to our heroes engaging in a very real act of on-screen “tongue-sucking” and intercourse. So far, so meta.
Things begin to get convoluted after a trip to the Adult Entertainment Expo, wherein a rivalry of sorts with fellow “mental humiliatrix” Goddess Lilith (Lilith Astaroth) comes to light. Ceara’s dark side surfaces, making Julian question her ethics. He gets in touch with one of her hapless clients, Luke (Joseph D. Reitman). From this point on, the film devolves into a by-the-numbers, unintentionally hilarious thriller, involving kidnapping, blackmail, Julian going to extremes you won’t believe – and a twist that deems itself more clever than it is. All the verisimilitude the film’s effectively built up dissipates in its last 20 minutes.
“Shaw touches upon some compelling themes: the futility of our pursuit of the American Dream, the fragile line between ‘fetish’ and ‘addiction,’ and the effects of society’s digitalization.”
Ceara is as charming and natural a screen presence as they cum – sorry – come. It’s easy to see the allure in her vibrant smile, charisma, sense of humor, and a penchant for raunchiness. She never truly lets us into her mind – purposefully, tantalizingly so. Viewing herself as a psychologist, a seductress, even an empowered feminist perhaps, she lives out her pixelated life, unburdened by the effect her sessions may have on her clients. In that way, she and Julian are kindred souls, seeing each other through the lens of their respective cameras.
Some of the navel-gazing in Use Me verges on gratuitous. Certain scenes lag momentum and pacing. Yet Shaw touches upon compelling themes: the futility of our pursuit of the American Dream, the fragile line between “fetish” and “addiction,” and the effects of society’s digitalization. “In America, you can get to the top,” one interviewee says, “but you make one simple mistake, you come tumbling right down.” Here’s hoping that the miscalculated ending to his otherwise gripping film doesn’t hinder Shaw’s rise to the top.
Use Me (2019) Written and Directed by Julian Shaw. Starring Julian Shaw, Ceara Lynch, Jazlyn Yoder, Joseph D. Reitman, Sarah Armanious, Lilith Astaroth, Jonathon Green, Jolene Hexx, Kevin Mannis.
6 out of 10