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April 17, 2015

I have to admit, for a horror movie hung on a single motivating gimmick, Unfriended could have been a lot worse than it was. With cyberbullying as a hook, the whole movie takes place on a computer screen as the characters interact over Skype and other social media sites. Still, it continues a streak of Timur Bekmambetov backing projects on the basis of a neat idea that never really goes much of anywhere.

It’s the one year anniversary of the day Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) killed herself. Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) watches the LiveLeak video of Laura’s suicide, and then starts to watch the video that humiliated her so much. She’s interrupted a few seconds in when her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) calls her on Skype. They start flirting a bit before they’re interrupted by three more friends — Adam, Jess, and Ken (Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, and Jacob Wysocki) — along with an unnamed caller using Skype’s default icon. Weirder, they can’t seem to disconnect the mystery caller; the normal interface controls aren’t showing up as usual.

Then messages start coming in on Facebook chat, seeming to come from Laura’s account. Blaire thinks it might be another friend, Val (Courtney Halverson), but when they loop her into the call it’s clear she’s not behind the weirdness they quickly dismiss as “hacking”. But of course it isn’t hacking, at least not in the traditional sense. Laura Barns is back, and she’s out for revenge.

Setting the whole thing on Blaire’s screen turns out to be a fairly interesting choice, as gimmicks go, and director Levan Gabriadze uses it for a fair amount of side-channel communication that helps build Blaire’s character. We get to see her Spotify playlist, and her open Chrome tabs include the Forever 21 site and the site for MTV’s Teen Wolf series, as a nod to another of Hennig’s projects. The chat videos provide a nice replacement for the found footage genre’s usual shaky-cam, with cutouts and compression artifacts providing much less nauseating visual fuzz.

But aside from Blaire and her occasional iMessage chat with Mitch we don’t really interact with any of her friends except through a little Skype window, and it’s really hard to develop much of a character like that. They’re little more than sketches. Ken is into computers and technology; Adam’s a rich kid with even more of a budding alcohol problem than the rest of them. Beyond that, there’s not really much to say. Mitch has little to distinguish him behind the “boyfriend” stamp, and even Blaire is only slightly more shaded in than the rest.

And that’s a problem because we really don’t get enough contact to care about them one way or the other. Are they a bunch of kids who made a stupid mistake and deserve our sympathy? or do they deserve every torture Laura serves up? The movie doesn’t seem to care either way, and doesn’t give us any reason we should either. We’re so disconnected from them that the tone comes off more comical than scary.

It’s clear, at least, what the movie is trying to do. These kids interact effortlessly as digital natives, but they don’t really understand their landscape any better than their parents do. Ken is a possible exception, but even he seems willing to blithely dismiss strange occurrences as “weird computer stuff” that “happens all the time”.

As unconvincing as Unfriended is, it does manage to lay bare the idea that the internet does present new and unfamiliar dangers that, if we’re not careful, can and do ruin lives. Maybe it’s not as scary to me because I grew up before my entire life and every stupid decision I ever made was recorded and preserved forever in digital amber; it may well resonate with today’s teens more than it did with me. Cyberbullying is clearly fertile ground for stories these days, with A Girl Like Her and The Sisterhood of Night coming out right around the same time, and hooking that into a teen-friendly horror story is only natural.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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