Unfriended (dir. Levan “Leo” Gabriadze)

Posted: April 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Unfriended” isn’t really a horror movie. It features a ghost, possession (of people and electronic devices), and human beings who are truly horrendous, but the film doesn’t really attempt to be scary. It is often tense, but not particularly in the way a horror film would be.  There’s some gore, but the film doesn’t really allow us to see all that much of it, sometimes obfuscating it in a way that can be frustrating for the horror viewer.  No, it’s fairly clear while watching this film that it’s not really a horror movie.

The movie this most reminded me of is “Phone Booth”, a kind-of-forgotten from 13 years ago in which a man is held at gun point by a heard but unseen sniper and made to account for his moral failings.  That film was a morality play, of sorts.  The main conflict of that film was whether a morally flawed protagonist could be forced, by threat of death or embarrassment or any number of unpleasant consequences, to repent, confess, and be moral.  This is the genre in which “Unfriended” more fully resides.  While it plays superficially like a horror film, that seems to be the medium the filmmakers have chosen solely in order to reach the audience it wants to reach.  That audience is also being held to account, in some ways.

Remember a few years back, around 2010 and 2011, when bullying and cyberbullying were all over the news.  The broader story of bullying in general has kind of gone away, with the more specific bullying of LGBT youth now controlling the spotlight and movements like the It Gets Better campaign.  This isn’t to say that people have forgotten about bullying, or that the LGBT-specific issues co-opted the larger issue.  It’s more that the media has decided to play with a different narrative.  The broader bullying issue seemed to come to a head in 2011 when the documentary “Bully” was released and there a minor brouhaha over the rating (it was given an R because of swear words almost every teenager hears on a daily basis).  The goal of the documentary was seemingly to make the public aware of the institutional failures in punishing bullies and protecting the bullied.  It’s been 14 years since I’ve been in high school, and I have no idea if the problem has gotten any better or worse, but I doubt it has.

While the “Bully” documentary was a noble effort, it would perhaps be easier to try to make bullies feel empathy than to try to effect social change within the education system.  The latter involves politics and differing philosophies and a beaurocracy that is often intractable. The former, however, merely involves trying to make the victimizer care about the victim and stop their behavior.  Aside from psychopaths, all humans and capable of empathy, and it would seem like it may, MAY, be easier to get bullies to empathize with the bullied.  How many teenage bullies would go to see a documentary about bullying, though? On their own?  I gather not many.  What kind of film would they see of their own free will? A horror movie seems right up there.  Have the film rated R and tell them they can’t see it, well, then they’ll feel like they have to.

So perhaps, just perhaps, “Unfriended” is an attempt to do what “Bully” both couldn’t do and in some ways didn’t even try to do.  The film is about how casual and effortless it is for teens to mock and ridicule their peers, especially when the internet makes it easy, quick, and grants the bullying a way to extend beyond the hours and walls of a school.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” doesn’t really work when it’s not just words that are deployed as weapons.  It’s photographs, videos, memes, GIFs, and things my 31-year-old self probably haven’t even heard of.  If the old schoolyard bully of the “give me your lunch money” fame had his fists and a snarl to hurt you, the bullies of today have the equivalent of nuclear weapons.

“Unfriended” takes place entirely on the desktop of a Mac laptop.  It shows us websites and software we’re all familiar with: Google, Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, Skype, Youtube, Chrome, Chatroulette, and a bunch more.  These all have the potential to date the film (I’m not even sure you can make your entire screen Facebook messages anymore or if you have to use a smaller window), but they also make it very of-the-moment in a way that every teenager watching the film will know what each sound means.  That bubble popping sound of a text message on Skype, or the tone of a received Facebook message are as familiar to many of us as the sounds of our own names.  The film is often clever in how it uses these mediums to show us its story. Spotify provides a diegetic soundtrack, Skype windows rotate to let us know which character to pay attention to when there are sometimes 6 videos going at once, iMessenger mutes Skype’s sound when it’s pulled up front so we know to pay attention to one program over another.  The screen can often be very busy, with interesting visual information at the edges of the frame, but the film does a good job directing us to where it wants us to focus.  I imagine the stage directions in this screenplay must have been difficult to write, and kudos go to the screenwriter,  Nelson Greaves.  Greaves apparently works on the horrible TV show “Sleepy Hollow” and other than that has no writing credits to speak of.  He seems to have gotten this gig because he was the assistant to one of the producers, Timur Bekmambetov, who himself is writer/director.

The director, Levan Gabriadze, is Russian, like Timur.  Nearest as I can tell, Gabriadze has never done anything like “Unfriended” before. He seems to have made a romantic comedy in Russia with Milla Jovovich and not much else.  If the rumors of “Unfriended” being films in one long, 83 minute take are true (and I have my doubts), then this must have been a nightmare to choreograph.  While the videos are meant to be webcams, and thus stationary unless a character physically moves one, having multiple video streams that need to overlap and edit together is not a simple thing, and likely more challenging than the average found-footage movie, of which “Unfriended” has similarities but probably doesn’t strictly belong in.  This film looks like it was a logistical nightmare to pull off, and the director gets kudos for making a film that doesn’t just result in the audience ending up frustrated and with a headache.

The plot is fairly simple. A girl named Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) has a video of her in which she is drunk, passed out, and oozing period blood posted to Youtube. I’m fairly certain Youtube would have taken this video down, as a video in which I merely discussed the genre of porn parodies was taken down once, but whatever.  The video results in a bunch of nasty comments and Laura shoots herself in the head from the cyberbullying.  Cut to a year later and we meet Blair (Shelley Hennig) who is Skyping with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm) and telling him how she’s decided they should lose their virginities to each other on prom night.  This later becomes a group chat joined by three others: Ken (Jacob Wysocki) the jokey fat guy tech nerd stereotype; Jess (Renee Olstead), blonde bitch stereotype; Adam (Will Peltz), alcoholic affluent jock; and later Val (Courtney Halverson), whom the others don’t seem to like very much and is probably one degree outside of their circle.  Soon, pictures start getting posted of onto their accounts that they didn’t post and an unnamed account is on the group chat, indicating there’s a glitch or someone’s been hacked.  This later includes Laura’s old Facebook account.  Eventually, the unnamed account reveals itself to be Laura’s, people are taken to task for their past misdeeds and indiscretions, the characters are made to turn on each other as revelations are made, and people die.

The teens in this film are all psychopaths.  They claim to be each other’s friend, they sometimes claim to love one another, but they will betray each other at the drop of a hat, and often backstab or insult for no other reason than that they are bored and find casual, offhanded cruelty to be funny.  In this film, all of the characters are two-faced, duplicitous trolls.  There’s not a likeable person to be had, and the real question isn’t who will die or how, but rather what despicable action did these characters commit, and do they have the morality to do the right thing and confess their sins and accept their judgment.  Some of their bad behaviors are simple things: cheating on someone, lying about one’s sexual history, starting a nasty rumor.  Others are worse, like desecrating a grave or drugging a girl to have sex with her and then forcing her into an abortion.  The big question of the film is who made the video of Laura, who uploaded it, and why would they do such a thing?

The film is interesting from a technical standpoint, and it is clever and highly watchable.  The actors are all suitable convincing in their roles of despicable, immoral psychopathic teenagers.  The story, however, is kind of one note.  The movie is attempting to reach asshole teenagers who are exactly the type of people who would want to see this movie and tell them “hey, stop being dicks to each other for no goddamn reason”.  None of the characters in the film seem to really have a good reason for the bad things they do, they just do them.  The film at least wants its audience to stop for a moment and consider why in order to see that effortless cruelty doesn’t evaporate as easily as it appears.  Cruelty lingers.  The film also wants to point out that if a person is mocked because they find themselves in a compromising position, or because knowledge of them gets out, you’re no different.  The only difference between the mocker and the mockee is that the mocker’s secrets have successfully stayed hidden, at least for the moment.  The Laura ghost in the film doesn’t simply want to engage in revenge-murder, she wants to let them know exactly how it feels to be betrayed, have all of their secrets purged, and then have these people destroy themselves.

My guess is asshole teenagers will watch the film, find it stupid, and go on being assholes.  The asshole teens who talked behind me when I saw “It Follows” for the first time likely saw this film, talked throughout it, and failed to take any message home with them.  In that sense, attempting to reach that audience with a horror movie, as opposed to a pious documentary, is noble, but flawed.  The people who will respond most to this film will be those who were bullied and enjoy the revenge fantasy and film geeks and horror aficionados who appreciate the medium even if the content is a tad lacking.  The teen horror crowd, who enjoy crap like “Ouija” and “The Lazarus Effect” will not like this.  Also, even as a film geek and horror movie lover, a big portion of the film being given over to characters revealing bad things about themselves, and things they’ve done to characters we never meet, using the “Never Have I Ever” game, is not always interesting or entertaining.

Still, one applauds the attempts the filmmakers have made to address the reality of cyberbullying, and one certainly appreciates the innovative and clever technical accomplishment of this film, even if the movie fails as a horror film by not really being scary. B-

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