Focus groups continue to rise in power and prominence in a society ever more driven by marketing, demographics, and brand awareness. These judgmental little panels have already made their influence felt in fashion, politics, transportation, and entertainment. How long will it be before focus groups are being called upon to evaluate individual citizens, telling them exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are? That’s the nightmare scenario of The Focus Group, a Kickstarter-funded short film written by and starring comedian Sara Benincasa. In this nine-minute comedy, Benincasa plays a thirtysomething woman who seems to be personally and professionally adrift. Her boyfriend dumped her, she got fired from her last job, her food blog is languishing, and her life now mainly revolves around eggrolls and masturbation. Her friend recommends a “boutique personal services agency” that can really improve a person’s life. “Are you in a cult?” Benincasa half-jokingly asks.
The comedian is skeptical of this “service,” but she tries it out anyway. Some time later, she shows up at a tastefully appointed office and is almost immediately ushered into a focus group, where her appearance is mercilessly critiqued by a group of painfully hip urbanites with ridiculously twee job titles. One sells jars of artisinal fat, for instance. Things get NSFW for a few seconds here during the body evaluation phase, so viewers should proceed with discretion before clicking that play button.
As it turns out, apart from her “cute ears,” there is very little about Benincasa that the panelists actually like. They deride her “feral” hair, her tattoo of North Carolina, her too-prominent nose, and her “FEMINIST” T-shirt. “It doesn’t feel safe,” one panelist whines. And then there is a spirited discussion of Benincasa’s FUPA. (That’s “fat upper pussy area” for anyone who’s not a medical professional.) The moderator of the group offers the comedian a Faustian rehabilitation program that includes several plastic surgeries and an eggroll-free diet. All she has to do is sign the contract, and she’ll be “happy” forevermore. And isn’t happiness what everyone wants? If this all sounds a little sinister, that’s because it is. The Focus Group seems like it could easily turn into a 2016 feminist remake of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds at any moment. It’s up to Benincasa whether to become a Rock Hudson or stay a John Randolph.