At the very beginning of Welcome to Me a mentally unstable woman named Alice wins $86 million dollars in the lottery. Now, if you or I won that much money we would probably spend it on luxury goods, but Alice doesn't want boats or diamonds. No, she wants attention, and so she uses her money to buy one hundred hours of airtime on a local infomercial station with the intention of broadcasting a show called "Welcome To Me" that will mix poorly cast re-enactments of her past traumas with recipes for meatloaf cake. The production crew she hires to produce her show have misgivings about helping such a vulnerable person air her dirty laundry in such a public forum, but then again it is a paycheck... And besides, aren't they just the middle men between a willing exhibitionist and the millions of YouTubers who are excitedly watching her most of control moments?
That plot description makes Welcome to Me sound like a satire of our cynical media and it is, sort of. It makes sense to compare this movie to, say, Network because both want to explore issues around how television persoanlities interact with their audience, and how capitalism can pervert one or both sides of that equation. Actually, a comparison to Network is extremely appropriate since both films center on crazy people, meaning that they are also specifically exploring the grey area between entertainment and exploitation, and whether it is ethically acceptable for an audience of strangers to enjoy a crazy person embarrassing themselves on television.
However, I am not completely comfortable with calling Welcome to Me a media satire because it doesn't have a biting or overly comedic tone. In fact, a more logical comparison might be to something like The Truman Show which was also trying to be simultaneously sweet and philosophical. Both Welcome to Me and the Truman Show are using the central conceit of "this person is living their entire life on television" to explore the tension that most people feel between their desire for attention and their need for privacy, and as such their protagonists can sometimes feel a bit like cautionary tales more than characters; that is a natural byproduct of the artificial experience of watching a movie about people who have a love-hate relationship with being watched. Still, the most interesting aspects of this movie are the one that deal most directly with Alice's compulsion to overshare her private life with strangers, because those parts ask difficult psychological questions about why we need public acceptance and where the line is between mere honesty and brazen neediness.
Then again, the Welcome to Me and The Truman Show comparison is also imperfect because Welcome to Me isn't tidy the way The Truman Show is; it is not always clear how we're supposed to feel about Alice, while Truman is clearly a good guy in a weird situation. In that regard a better comparison might be to Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy which is another movie that explores issues around exhibitionism, mental illness, and the media, but which does so in a very messy manner. Both Welcome to Me and The King of Comedy are character studies of complicated people who are not quite likeable and not quite pitiful and not quite sane, and as such it's not always clear how we are supposed to feel about them. Welcome to Me knows that Alice is not necessarily a good person, that she is selfish and overly dramatic, but it still wants you to sympathize with her because it wants you to see how her actions are motivated by her own interior suffering. The fact that Alice is allowed to be both sympathetic and alienating at the same time makes this a much more subtle film than it would be if it was merely a tool to make a point about society's ills or if she was just a walking metaphor for our existential fears.
At this point you might be asking: wait, this is a satire-existential-drama-character-study? Isn’t that a bit much? Well, yes, yes it is. Welcome to Me is trying to do so much at once, and so much of what it is trying to do is so weird, that even though I liked it quite a bit I totally understand all of the mixed reviews it got upon its initial release. The way that Welcome to Me mixes it’s various parts together worked for me because I thought that it’s shades-of-grey character work kept the more intellectual parts from seeming too heavy handed, but I also see why it’s lack of focus would be frustrating to viewers who might be more interested in some parts of its story than others. If you really want this movie to be a mere media critique, well, strap in because it is gonna be a bumpy ride.
But who really needs another media critique? Other films have done that and done that well. What Welcome to Me is doing is something altogether fresher, since it is trying to look at the complete ecology system around outsider art without laying too much moral judgment on any specific part of the food chain. It isn’t Alice’s fault that she is crazy; her cameraman man didn’t ask to live in a world where he has to pay rent; the audience at home didn’t choose to be hardwired to want to rubberneck at trainwrecks. The fact that the sum total of those parts is disturbingly dysfunctional doesn’t mean that any of the component parts are evil on their own; it just means that life is a crazy mess of irreconcilable emotions.
Which gets at why I think that Welcome to Me is ultimately successful, even if it is undeniably uneven: its form matches it's function. After all, this is a film about an outsider artist, and the whole point of outsider art is that unpolished people sometimes make the best poets because their obvious imperfections reveal the parts of their humanity that the rest of us hide. As such, the fact that Welcome to Me is trapped somewhere between being endearing and being offputting is what makes it work; the fact that it occupies a liminal area between saying something profound and just being weird for weirdness sake is a feature, not a bug. Not everyone is going to want to embrace Welcome to Me, but I for one am glad that I made it's acquaintance.