‘TikTok, Boom.’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Shalini Kantayya’s documentary examines one of the most influential social media platforms today, tackling issues of cultural influence, algorithmic bias, cybersecurity, geopolitics and more.

As noted in a voiceover near the start of TikTok, Boom., there are so many through lines to be explored here: “It’s a cybersecurity story. It’s an algorithm story. It’s a bias story. It’s a geopolitical story.” Shalini Kantayya’s documentary tries, to varying degrees, to explore seemingly all of them. And if it’s perhaps too broad to serve as the definitive last word on the buzzy social media platform, it does at least make for a thoughtful conversation starter.

TikTok, Boom. is loosely structured around three prominent TikTok personalities: Feroza Aziz, an Afghan-American teen censored by the platform for speaking out on the Uyghur genocide; Spencer X, a beatboxer who found creative and commercial success on the app; and Deja Foxx, an activist and political strategist who founded the online community GenZ Girl Gang.

TikTok, Boom.

The Bottom Line

A thoughtful conversation starter.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Director: Shalini Kantayya

1 hour 30 minutes

Woven around their stories are shorter appearances from other content creators (including one on Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese counterpart) — plus interviews with experts like New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz and tech ethicist David Ryan Polgar, who provide larger context about TikTok’s history, its data-collecting algorithm, its effect on young people, its role in the cultural tug-of-war between the U.S. and China, and more.

The film’s wide view makes for a more complete portrait of TikTok than a more narrowly focused one might have offered, and possibly a more nuanced one. While TikTok, Boom. does not shy away from criticism of the platform, Kantayya seems no more interested in unilaterally condemning it than praising it. Instead, she takes the time to engage with a diverse array of voices and viewpoints, and consider the platform from all angles. Her open-mindedness gives TikTok, Boom. a sense of trustworthiness — it’s more interesting to process a sincere exploration than a pointed screed.

So for one content creator, TikTok might represent a “gold rush” of sponsorship opportunities, while for another, it might feel like a burden she can’t escape because it’s how she supports herself and her family. It’s what one creator calls a “blow-up-overnight kind of place” that can mint new stars overnight, and at the same time a restrictive space with internal policies that can silence the already marginalized. The For You Page is a groundbreaking feature that makes TikTok terrifyingly good at tailoring itself to a user’s specific tastes; what shady things it does with the information it gathers isn’t necessarily all that different from what every other social media site does with it, as documented in other projects like The Social Dilemma or Kantayya’s own Coded Bias.

Kantayya’s careful construction keeps the deluge of information from overwhelming the viewer. Often, it mimics the organic flow of a conversation. When one influencer vents, “‘The algorithm’ — what does that even mean?” the film cuts to a tech developer describing it as a sort of digital Sorting Hat, emphasizing the point with a clip from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. That the film never seems to stay on one topic too long seems wryly appropriate for its subject; after all, no TikTok video lasts more than a few minutes either.

But TikTok, Boom.‘s ambition of covering seemingly everything to do with TikTok in 90 minutes means that it rarely has time to dig beyond basic concepts. Much is made of TikTok being the first Chinese social media app to blow up in a tech landscape previously dominated by American companies, for example — but less clear is what this means for individuals who have no particular stake in the pissing contest between Mark Zuckerberg and Zhang Yiming, the Chinese founder of TikTok parent company ByteDance.

Its Gen Z subjects give chewy, sometimes slightly depressing soundbites about their ambivalence around social media. “I kind of have to live with fact that there’s gonna be people that are profiting off my data and I have no real recourse for that,” says one teenage user — the son of Scott R. Drury, a data privacy lawyer who speaks at length in the documentary about, among other things, TikTok’s failures to protect minors from child predators. Another young influencer muses that “I don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where I’m not being perceived, always.” But a deeper exploration about how those realities change their self-perception, or how it might shape their futures, remains outside of the film’s scope.

TikTok, Boom. feels not like a dispatch from the heart of TikTok culture, or a deep dive into the issues surrounding it, but an introduction meant for people who might be familiar with the app just in passing. It seems less likely to come as a revelation to people who are Too Online as it is (myself included, admittedly). As I write this, we’re just a few days removed from West Elm Caleb, the latest TikTok tale to go viral enough to inspire think pieces on what the whole saga says about TikTok specifically, about social media more generally or about the world more broadly. These are ideas worth grappling with, and TikTok, Boom. is helpful as a way in. But those most engaged in them may find that the discussion has already moved past what’s offered here.

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Campfire Studios
Director: Shalini Kantayya
Producers: Ross M. Dinerstein, Shalini Kantayya, Danni Mynard
Executive producers: Ross Girard, Rebecca Evans, Travis Collins, Randall Lane, Michael Cho, Mimi Rode, Tim Lee, William Rosenfeld, Robert Kapp
Director of photography: Steve Acevedo
Editor: Seth Anderson
Composer: Katya Mihailova
Sales: CAA

1 hour 30 minutes