“The Circle”

 

            Mae Holland (Emma Watson) lives a fairly ordinary kind of life.  She's a recent college graduate who still lives at home.  She's working a temp job where she sits in a cubicle taking calls from customers who are upset about their utility bill.  Her parents are still together, and they seem to be loving and accepting, but her Dad's got M.S., and he's getting worse by the day, which just makes her sad.  For recreation, she likes to rent a kayak and just go out on the Bay paddling on the water.  If she has any siblings, we don't meet them.  She doesn't seem to have a boyfriend, either, although there's a kid from the neighborhood, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), who actually works with his hands, unlike most everybody else she knows.  We meet one outside friend, Annie (Karen Gillan), who works at this huge high-tech social media firm called “The Circle.”  When Annie tells Mae that she got her an interview there, Mae is simply ecstatic.  Everyone wants to work there.

            And now that Mae has arrived at “The Circle,” it's even more exciting than she thought.  It's full of young, bright, creative, energetic people, who dress informally, whose work space is clean and uncluttered, and who inhabit this lovely campus with many different kinds of recreational opportunities, for interaction among employees.  Mae works very hard at her new job, trying to get her customer surveys to 100% satisfied.  She's encouraged to sign up for extracurricular social activities, even though they're supposedly voluntary.  Since the company's tracking devices are legendary, they know exactly where she's been.  Oh, the problem is going home to help take care of an ailing Dad?  Hey, no worries, we can put him and your Mom on your insurance plan.  You want to kayak?  Hey, why not ask one of your co-workers to come along?  Oh, and as part of your company physical, we'll supply you with this medical monitoring device, free.  You just wear it like a watch, and we'll be able to alert you about any significant change in your cholesterol, or blood pressure, or liver enzymes.

            There's a small part of Mae that's still resisting all this connectionalism:  whatever happened to personal privacy?  And she meets one of the original founders of The Circle, who cautions her about where all this monitoring is headed.  But after Mae earns some notoriety by capsizing a purloined kayak at night and having to be fished out of The Bay by helicopter, she goes on stage with the smooth-talking CEO, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), and agrees to “go transparent”:  to be monitored 24/7, with the world available to tweet their reactions.  And they do.  She has millions of viewers.  And every conversation she has with anybody—co-workers, parents, friends, anybody---is posted online, as well.

            But as we all know, people are not always their best selves when they can write anonymous blogs.  Not only is “cyberbullying” possible, but there's also the dynamic of Mob Mentality, and Groupthink.  Animal pictures are cute, trophy hunters are bad, nature pics are cool, but anybody caught hitting someone else is bad----you know how this works.  And sometimes cameras catch people doing things they don't necessarily want the world to see.  And there can be unintended consequences.

            As popular as Tom Hanks is as an actor, there's a “dark side” to his character here that we're barely willing to acknowledge.  Emma Watson is enough of a veteran actor to skillfully portray the nuances of the classic Eve:  complete innocence at first, followed by a curiosity to push the boundaries of her knowledge, followed by a sudden fall from grace.  But is there life outside of Eden?

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Do you think that social media is already too intrusive?

2)                  How would you like for your privacy to be respected?

3)                  Celebrities like Tom Hanks and Emma Watson don't have the luxury of being anonymous in public.  How important is that to you?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association