Canadian Elle Mills may be one of the country’s most successful YouTubers (ElleOfTheMills), but after building a massive career on the online platform she’s transitioned to filmmaking, writing and directing the short film REPLY, available on Creator+.
“On the set of REPLY, everything changed for me,” Mills told Yahoo Canada. “I think it was an amazing experience and made me realize what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
“I think I realized I’d rather tell stories that aren't at the expense of my privacy, and create that wall. It feels more creatively fulfilling to figure out ways to tell my perspectives through characters and other storylines… I'm 24 but somehow with YouTube, I feel so old. But with directing it makes me feel young again and it feels like I have my whole life ahead of me.”
REPLY introduces us to Sam, played by Anthony Rosenthal, who discovered a video of his mom, Casey, during her last year of high school and summer before college. Transitioning to an early 2000s-esque home video, Casey (Ciara Riley Wilson) has documented her summer project building a tree house, while her boyfriend Jackson (Corey Fogelmanis) is often at work. But the video also shows the beginning of Casey's connection and budding romance with neighbour Hayden (Ava Capri).
“I liked the idea of this found footage storyline because…home videos are such an important part of my story, in terms of filmmaking, because I started off on YouTube," Mills said. "I grew up loving 2000s teen movies and romance films, so I think it was like fulfilling this childhood dream of mine to see a queer 2000s teen romance.”
The short film has that satisfying nostalgic vibe, while also brilliantly displaying the innocence of the very beginning stage of teenage love and connection, in this heartwarming and sweet queer story.
“If I had seen a character like Hayden when I was in high school, it would have meant a lot to me,” Mills said. “What was important for me, with telling the queer story, was tapping into that innocence.”
For REPLY, Mills also used her personal experience with family units that shift and change due to divorce, which led to the decision to tell this story through the perspective of a child looking at a part of their parent's life they never knew about.
“Almost all the adult relationships in my life ended in divorce,” Mills said. “It's like this wish fulfillment…that true love does exist.”
“I think for me, it was more of that childlike look at love. That was kind of the focus. Love is messy, love is complicated, but it's why I wanted it to be from this kid's perspective, because I think it would lean into the innocence of that, the storyline, without being too corny and cheesy.”
'I had to almost hit the bottom to be able to go in that direction'
Mills is making her mark as a unique voice in the filmmaking world after carving out a reputation for having brilliantly cinematic YouTube video concepts.
Notably, Mills received extensive attention for several of her more personal videos on YouTube, like her coming out video, but she was also one of the first YouTubers who published videos honestly revealing the pressures of having that career, which resulted in her taking a step back from the platform.
Just this week, Mills released a video titled “What Happened to Elle Mills?” on YouTube. As the New Radicals hit “You Get What You Give” plays in the video, Mills takes us through her path to success on YouTube, being part of a world she fantasized about being a part of as a kid, while recognizing that, that success resulted in "severe anxiety."
“It was very confusing to me that the one thing that maked me so happy was also the reason I was so depressed,” Mills says in a voiceover in the video.
“I don’t want to be the product anymore.”
While going through an admirable personal journey to get to her current creative place, Mills also recognizes that she wouldn’t be the filmmaker she is today without her years of experience on YouTube.
“There's a lot of hard things I had to go through during my YouTube career, and publicly, that I think now, having reflected on it and starting this new chapter, I would do it all over again,” Mills said. “I do think it's made me grow as a person and have set boundaries for myself.”
“As much as the consequences do suck, there's a lot of stuff in my personal life that I feel that my YouTube career has caused. It has shaped my perspective on things… Everything that's happened on YouTube has made me who I am today and I'm a completely different person from where I started… I had to almost hit the bottom to be able to go in that direction.”
REPLY is not just an entertaining watch for ElleOfTheMills fans. While it’s great to see Mills grow up and evolve, what this short film establishes is that her creative voice is strong, unique and something we want to see more of in the future.