If you’re over the age of 25, TikTok will make you feel about 100. The enormously popular Chinese social media video app is a colossal repository of viral comedy, virtuoso dance routines, daredevil stunts and talent-show theatrics, most of which seem to be performed by precocious teens.
But also, TikTok has developed an interesting relationship to the movies. People are using the app to engage with cinema in a variety of ways, from simple homage to astute commentary. On TikTok, a movie may be viciously parodied or recreated in fervid tribute; it may be mocked, riffed on or playfully remixed. Because the platform allows users to upload or work with prerecorded sounds, including popular songs and movie dialogue, it’s easy to re-enact scenes from films or use their soundtracks creatively.
What was once the domain of the film essayist — made famous by artists such as Jean-Luc Godard, who mashed up movie clips with critical narration in his seminal “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” — can now be done in a few minutes by a teenager with a smartphone.
“There’s a filmmaker’s sense of timing and pacing,” explained Charlie Shackleton, a British documentarian who has made several feature-length essay films, including “Beyond Clueless” and “Fear Itself.”
“I am always impressed by the seemingly quite innate feel for timing that a lot of people on TikTok have, both comedic timing and editing timing,” he said. Shackleton pointed to a viral video by a teenager from California, Kiki Kitsinis, as an example of the kind of cultural criticism filmmakers like him are doing in the essay form: The video features an excerpt from the Netflix movie “Tall Girl” in which the eponymous hero bemoans her “size 13 Nikes,” asking the audience to “beat that.” In the TikTok, Kitsinis removes a wig from her head and flatly says, “I have cancer.”
“There’s an antagonism in the video, which I’m sure would not necessarily be welcomed by Netflix,” Shackleton said.
These videos aren’t always critical. Often TikTok teens are content to take the forms and conventions of popular movies, for example, by using their sounds and images to communicate new or amusing ideas.
One video, by Adriana Chavez (on TikTok as @itbeadri), imagines a version of the horror sequel “It Chapter Two” in which the evil clown Pennywise manifests as more “adult fears”: taxes, mortgage plans, student loans. “I had basically that exact conversation about the movie with my sister the day the movie came out in theaters,” Chavez, a 16-year-old from Dallas, said about the video. “My process is, I think about something and I just do it. That video took me like, maximum five minutes. I put it on TikTok and then it blew up.”
Sometimes videos will appropriate the language of a particular movie to make a joke about something else entirely. At the coffee shop where she works in the town of Corvallis, Ore., Morgan Eckroth, a.k.a. @morgandrinkscoffee, makes videos about barista pet peeves and the mundane foibles of her job.
Here she spoofs Jordan Peele’s “Us” — borrowing the film’s creepy slow-burn version of the Luniz song “I Got 5 on It,” as well as its tense pace and dread-inducing rhythms — to ridicule the cafe customer who invariably turns up to haunt the place in the morning before the doors are open. The conventions of the slasher are instantly familiar and are used to hilarious effect. “Music and clips from movies really lend themselves to turning an everyday thing into something really dramatic,” Eckroth said.
Like a lot of TikTok users, Eckroth had never done anything like this before. “It’s easy on TikTok for people with no video experience to cut things together because the app is fantastic,” she said. “It’s crazy to see this level of artistry on an app that’s frequently made fun of by an older generation.”
TikTok is also home to an incredible amount of lip-syncing, as users take prerecorded clips from songs and movies and sing or act along. The lo-fi, bedroom-recording quality of these videos is often endearing and sweet. Young movie lovers have made an entire genre out of recreating their favorite movie scenes, with one person typically acting out multiple roles — as in a TikTok by Lana Torres, a.k.a. @garlicbabie. It’s an ode to Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”
The smooth shot reverse shot, which makes it look as though she’s having a conversation with herself, is the kind of editing trick that TikTok makes uniquely easy. “I chose that scene because it’s relatable and funny,” said Torres, 17, from Greensboro, N.C. TikTok also makes it easy for people to reuse sounds from another video; Torres’s recording of the “Scott Pilgrim" dialogue has been reused more than 600 times. “One that got even more likes than mine is just a girl making garlic bread. I thought that was kind of cool.”
TikTok has several other features that users playing with or riffing on movies can bring into the fold. For instance, users can perform “duets” with other videos, creating a split-screen effect that combines a new video with one that already exists. It’s frequently used as a kind of secondhand collaboration, or to produce a unique two-sided conversation.
After @jumpingspider (Eliza Fowl) recorded a video of herself performing Maggie Gyllenhaal’s part in a conversation from “Donnie Darko,” @punker_irl (Syd Amelie) jumped in to take the Jake Gyllenhaal role. The result is a coherent scene that comes together in a way that could only be done on TikTok. “When I saw that video, I had just dyed my hair black, and I love ‘Donnie Darko,’ so I thought, I’m perfect for this role,” explained Amelie, a 15-year-old from Kansas City with over 1.5 million followers. “I’m an artist, so I love to express myself like this artistically.”
At its heart, TikTok is about comedy, and many of its best videos about movies are designed to be funny. They can get surprisingly complex and genuinely weird, like this delightful video by Stanley Erhart, a.k.a. @lastmanstanley: A homemade homage to Ari Aster’s haunting, macabre “Hereditary,” Stanley’s video reimagines the climactic encounter with a reborn Satan as a run-in with a Chihuahua.
It doesn’t expressly mock or satirize “Hereditary,” but it captures something about the style and tone of that movie, and uses it to fresh and funny effect. Of course, as is typical of TikTok, it came about spontaneously, in a flash of inspiration. “I was watching ‘Hereditary’ on a plane coming back from school, and I totally loved it,” he explained. “Plus, I have these two small Chihuahuas, and they’re just so fat and funny looking. I thought it would be funny if I did something random with them.”
The nature of TikTok makes possible this kind of impulsive, wonderful thing. And as teenagers continue to experiment, messing around with the conventions of movies, it’s heartening to think of what they’ll come to make outside the app. For now, they’re largely just doing this stuff for fun — but the videos suggest their potential as critics and filmmakers-to-be.