Anchored by a compelling lead performance, Sweat crafts a complex portrait of an Instagram fitness influencer trying to hold together a pristine online image.
“I want to ask, do you really need to take this so far?” A morning talk show host asks Sylwia (Magdalena Koleśnik), an Instagram fitness star and influencer. “Do you have to expose yourself like this? Do you think…that we can show everything off these days? That it’s all for sale? Isn’t this too much?” These probing questions sound like they’re asking about scandalous images. But the matter at hand isn’t anything like that: she’s asking questions about a video where Sylwia confessed about her crippling loneliness and desire to be in a relationship. This kind of vulnerability, this shattering of the pristine image of an online fitness celebrity is too revealing, too distracting, too much. But how can it be too much, if it’s only highlighting a human underneath?
The second feature from Swedish-born writer and director Magnus von Horn, Sweat explores the complicated life of internet personalities through his protagonist Sylwia, a popular online fitness figure. On the surface, Sylwia has everything: a devoted fanbase of 600,000 followers, free products from popular fitness and food brands, television appearances, and her beloved dog Jackson. However, under the surface is a much different story. Feeling desperately lonely, she craves a relationship and meaningful connection that her carefully curated online lifestyle does not provide. Meanwhile, an obsessed fan (Tomasz Orpinski) begins stalking her, and even her family doesn’t seem to understand how much that bothers her.
Set over the course of three days, Sweat takes an intimate look into Sylwia’s life through her moments of loneliness and daily interactions with her family, fans, and business partners. The film works best as a character portrait—Sylwia is portrayed as a complicated, conflicted individual, and we see many sides of her, from the vain online personality desperate to secure an appearance on a popular morning talk show to a lonely, vulnerable young woman eagerly seeking meaningful connections and relationships but unable to find them in a world of artifice and performance. Magdalena Koleśnik is easily the highlight of Sweat, imbuing Sylwia with a captivating and organic sense of personality that convinces us that we’re watching a real person onscreen and not a fictional character in a film. There’s a uniquely empathetic core that shines through Sylwia’s vanity and Koleśnik completely sells the performance within a performance for her character.
At times, Sweat is a bit predictable and doesn’t add anything new or particularly insightful to the discourse around internet personalities. It doesn’t tell us much of anything we don’t already know about Instagram influencers or the artifice of online celebrity, and its conclusions are unsurprising—that this lifestyle is unfulfilling and harmful to one’s mental health. The one new direction it seems to take is an unexpected subplot around Sylwia’s stalker that’s surprisingly nuanced, but these scenes toward the end feel tonally out of place and drag down the pacing, and overall you get the sense that this film is very thematically unbalanced.
Behind the camera, Magnus von Horn displays a clever eye for engaging visual storytelling. The opening scene in particular—one of Sylwia’s live workouts at a shopping mall—is electrifying in its rapid cuts, handheld movements, and cinéma verité-style zooms. It’s a very immediate and dynamic sequence, immersing you into the frantic pace of one of Sylwia’s workouts and setting the stage for her fraught internal state. It’s a shame the rest of the film can’t keep up, because its uneven sense of rhythm is one of the culprits that really keeps this from being an anxious, fast-paced watch. There are some striking visual compositions in here, but the thread holding them together doesn’t feel so stable and it’s desperately missing that pulsing energy to propel itself throughout. Running around 105 minutes, it feels a bit too long and a shorter runtime would help secure that more engaging pace. Fortunately, Sweat regains its momentum by the end and finds just enough room (and just the right motivation) to close on that energetic high.
Sweat premiered digitally at the 47th Seattle International Film Festival on April 8-18, 2021.