REVIEW: ‘Sweat’ explores the dark sides of social media stardom



Still from “Sweat,” which was featured at the Chicago International Film Festival.

The idea of the “influencer” is a relatively new yet endlessly debated concept in the world of digital media. Where celebrities’ personal lives were once the subject of gossip columns and trashy magazines, some of today’s most famous faces willingly divulges the ins and outs of their daily lives on social media, letting their millions upon millions of loyal followers follow them morning through night.

Magnus von Horn’s “Sweat,” a Swedish-Polish film that nabbed the top prize at the Chicago International Film Festival’s International Feature Film Competition. 

The film stars Magdalena Kolesnik as Sylwia Zajac, a Polish fitness superstar and social media influencer with a following of nearly 600,000 adoring fans. Despite her peppy attitude, luxurious lifestyle and a figure that Barbie would be jealous of, Sylwia is plagued by constant bouts of self-doubt and loneliness, which come to a head when she discovers she has a stalker. “Sweat” chronicles three days in Sylwia’s life, following her from publicity events, family birthdays and every breakdown in between. 

From its opening sequence — Sylwia teaching a fitness class in front of hundreds of fans — it’s immediately clear that “Sweat” has a distinct sense of self, both visually and tonally.

The way the camera follows Sylwia is incredibly fascinating, because it is both self-aware of and nonetheless engaging in the commoditization of her beauty and figure. There are long, sweeping shots of her working out, hair, nails, makeup and clothes all pristine, but at the same time, where the camera tends to focus most is her eyes. 

It’s shocking that this is Zajac’s first lead role, because her presence in “Sweat” commands attention, and the camera can’t help but follow it. Her eyes, which are almost shockingly blue, are obviously beautiful but also carry an emptiness and fear in them. 

Whether she’s taking selfies with fans, arguing with her mother, or bringing home a guy after a party, she has this glassy, haunted look to her. It’s incredibly captivating, and the film’s direction works in perfect harmony with Zajac’s performance, which is in turn supported by an airtight script.

Although the film itself isn’t particularly eventful — more of a slice-of-life type deal — it’s mesmerizing and pressing nonetheless. “Sweat” approaches the idea of influencers in a way that few other pieces of media has, exploring the juxtaposition of familiarity and loneliness that comes part and parcel when you share every aspect of yourself with the world. 

There is, of course, an irony in her loneliness — Sylwia is in constantly agonizing over her lack of a romantic partner, when at the same time, fending off a stalker. 

It’s hardly a novel concept, but von Horn’s script and Kolesnik’s performance work in tandem to create a unique sort of sadness that persists throughout the film, even in its most lighthearted moments. Sylwia’s complaint that she doesn’t have a boyfriend or husband is never presented as a shallow one — you get the feeling that Sylwia, in all her success, is a profoundly lonely person. 

When it comes to illustrating influencers or social media stars in film and television, they’re usually portrayed as vapid, self-centered and often unintelligent young upstarts only interested in themselves and their popularity. On the other end of the spectrum is the cliched-to-death “fame is prison” narrative in films like “A Star is Born” that focuses entirely on the pressures of being a celebrity.

“Sweat” finds an unexplored and authentic middleground, where some aspects of Sylwia’s life are incredibly glamorous, and others are familiarly mundane. Yes, she’s always dressed to the nines and she lives in a stunning apartment, but she bickers with her mother, and much of the film’s plot centers around her mounting loneliness and paranoia. 

Sylwia is an incredibly empathetic character — presented neither as someone the audience should covet, nor one we should pity. She’s just Sylwia, some struggling like the rest of us, who happens to have a massive following. 

Kolesnik’s performance conveys this duality perfectly — never do we get the sense that she’s shallow, self-centered, or even a mean-spirited person. There are plenty of opportunities where a lesser actress would’ve taken the easier, more predictable route with a character like Sylwia, but Kolesnik brings a refreshing humanity and vulnerability to the character that makes her an uncommonly easy protagonist to root for. 

Even when her wealth or status is flaunted, neither von Horn nor Kolesnik loses the core of who Sylwia is as a person. Her layers upon layers of turmoil are one of the film’s few constant, always lurking underneath the surface of any conversation.

While it’s not particularly action-packed or flash, Magnus von Horn’s “Sweat” is a poignant, personal look at the inner turmoil and day-to-day life of a social media star. Enhanced by a strong set of supporting players but grounded by Magdalena Kolesnik’s hypnotic performance, “Sweat” is a unique and empathetic portrait of the double-edged sword that is social media stardom.