Feels Good Man Review

Legacy was an interesting sub-theme of this year’s True/False Festival. Several of the films in this year’s lineup consider the impact a person’s life and/or work have on family, fans and the world at large. Some of these movies, like Mucho Mucho Amor and Dick Johnson is Dead dealt with this topic in conjunction with the end of their subjects’ lives. Others, like Crip Camp considered the legacies of self-made communities, and the people that powered them.

Feels Good Man is also about legacy. It’s not nearly as loving as any of the above-named examples, however. Feels Good Man is, in some sense, a horror movie about the legacy of images, the ownership of images by their creators, and the lives they take on outside of the artists who make them. In particular, it’s a horror story about the life of one particular image: Pepe.

If you’ve been online much in the last six-ish years, you’ve definitely seen Pepe, the sad-looking frog and favorite symbol of the alt-right. Fans of underground comics know the character’s origin story is a little more complicated. Pepe was originally created by artist Matt Furie, as a character in his comic series Boys Club, about a bunch of anthropomorphic animal pals who hang out, play video games and party.

A specific frame from one of Furie’s strips featuring Pepe became a meme, which was then co-opted by message board users on 4Chan, which in turn became a breeding ground for Pepe’s use as an alt-right hate symbol. Furie was mostly unaware any of this was happening until it was almost too late to do anything about it and has spent the last few years trying to regain creative control of the character.

Feels Good Man charts Pepe’s journey from benign stoner cartoon to being registered as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. It also covers Furie’s experience trying to reclaim the character and repair his reputation, now damaged by forces beyond his control. First-time director Arthur Jones’ film leans heavier on the explanation side than the emotional impact on Furie—which is arguably the more dramatically interesting element. However, it’s still a worthwhile examination of art and modern-day iconography. 

Jones is on the side of Furie and his art, and the design of Feels Good Man displays a firm grounding in the indie scene Furie’s part of. The film includes animation of the Boy’s Club characters, including an impressive title sequence that sets the tone. Jones involved several indie art and comedy luminaries in making the film–Lisa Hanawalt and Emily Heller appear as interview subjects, and beloved found footage collective Everything is Terrible are among the folks who helped bring Furie’s drawings to life. All this is to say, Feels Good Man isn’t an out-of-touch attempt to explain some Weird Online Occurrence the kids are into. We’re in good hands.

That said, Jones spends a significant stretch discussing how memes work. Fortunately, he makes that discussion interesting. Jones speaks with experts ranging from political reporters to memeticists to an occult symbologist who draws some wild-but-on-the-money connections between the memes and ancient religious traditions.

This is interesting stuff, but it takes away a bit from spending time with Furie himself, who’s a sweet guy with an adorable family and goofy friends. He’s terminally chill and walks through the world with a sense of bemused surprise at everything. Furie is both exactly the kind of person something like this would happen to, and the person you’d least want to experience it. He’s unequipped to deal with what’s happening (honestly, who would be), but mostly unbothered until the wave of negativity is so big that it threatens to destroy him. Furie’s surrounded by a crew of supporters who range from his affable slacker housemate to concerned comics colleagues to his loving partner and kid, all of whom react to the Pepe developments in their own amusing ways. 

The most enraging element of Feels Good Man is Jones’ interviews with two 4Channers who helped Pepe become what he became. The folks he speaks to are proud of being slovenly basement-dwellers, and their weaponization of their own loneliness has metastasized into intense selfishness. They don’t care that their experiences were co-opted by people like Richard Spencer, who used their disenfranchisement for his own gain. They don’t even care that the character they’ve appropriated belongs to an actual person who’s horrified at how it’s being used. When one of Jones’ subjects describes 4Chan as being “group therapy on the internet,” you want to just reach through the screen and give the guy a number for an actual therapist.

Feels Good Man is a fascinating dive into a subculture and how one guy was inadvertently caught up in it. It also induces a kind of PTSD for the trash fire that was 2016. Jones’ documentary ends on an up note, but the prevailing forces behind its darkest moments are still very much around. If anything, Feels Good Man reminds us that as much as we’d like to put the recent past behind us, it’s not over. That’s an important message to take forward into an election year, when those same factors are already starting to rear their ugly heads again.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic, proud Midwesterner and pie enthusiast. Find her on twitter at @indieabby88.