Feels Good Man [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

If you spend any amount of time on the internet, you've undoubtedly seen Pepe, the cartoon frog who is a symbol of alt-right hate. His image is generally accompanied by swastikas, racist comments, and so forth. Those are all things creator Matt Furie never intended. The soft-spoken artist created Pepe as part of his comic book Boys Club, only to see him corrupted by the users of 4chan, an online message board frequented by (mostly) males who don't fit in socially and are angry about the fact that they're virgins or can't get women. That isn't me being facetious; 4channers describe themselves that way.

In the documentary Feels Good Man, which screens at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival, director Arthur Jones tracks how this benign drawing of a frog morphed into something that became registered on the Anti-Defamation League's list of hate symbols. I don't want to give the whole thing away because it's a complicated journey viewers should take on their own. Some of the core elements, however, are a picture that allowed people to project their own meaning onto it, a desire to keep women off 4chan, and, yes, Donald Trump, among other things. (When he tweeted a Pepe-fied picture of himself, the 4chan community believed he was sending them a message.) The bottom line is that by co-opting an otherwise innocent image, the alt-right discovered an ability to express their most despicable beliefs while hiding behind the idea that “it's only a joke.”

Half of Feel Good Man is an incisive look at our current political climate, where a wide swath of people care more about upsetting the other side than they do about actual policy issues. Jones goes deep into how memes spread, and how this one in particular was twisted and contorted until it took on a sinister connotation it was never meant to have. Honestly, it's a little scary to see some of the inner workings of the alt-right movement, which rely in part on trying to distort things so that facts no longer have any objective meaning.

The other half of the movie focuses specifically on Matt Furie. He walks us through the creation of Pepe, as well as his feelings upon witnessing how the character has been misused. We can see quite clearly that having one of his drawings become synonymous with bigotry has caused him anxiety and depression. Eventually, he makes some attempts to turn the tide on Pepe, first through an online hashtag movement, then through copyright violation lawsuits. One of those legal actions pits him against InfoWars' Alex Jones, who peddled Pepe posters on his website. Footage from their depositions is remarkable.

Combined, these halves add up to an explosive look at the culture war taking place in our country right now – a war where nothing is sacred. Sometimes shocking, other times weirdly funny, Feels Good Man (named after Pepe's catch phrase) is one of the year's most vital documentaries.

Feels Good Man is unrated, but contains adult language and mature imagery. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.