As we’ve seen too many times before, the act of cyber-bullying through various social media platforms have led to the suicides of a promising youths. As no other generation has had anything like social media to enter their lives, each of us is a trailblazer in establishing the standards of social media etiquette. We’re all doing a very poor job, by the way. Unsurprisingly, teens are making the most mistakes through social media, and the bizarre nature of the internet can exacerbate the inherent insecurity of a vulnerable teenager seeking to fit into a world they did not create. But Unfriended isn’t an introspective drama about the evils of cyber-bullying. It’s an exploitation flick that’s just a slight variation on the found footage gimmick, though only slightly better than most prominent found footage films.
The entire film takes place in within the window of Blaire’s (Shelley Henning) Apple laptop. At first she’s watching a LiveLeak video of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) committing suicide. The image is heavily pixelated, and though you can see the result in the headline of the video, the bang still invoked a jolt from the person next to me. Next, Blaire’s skyping with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), teasing each other with glimpses of flesh. When the couple believes they have complete intimacy, their friends are suddenly joined on a conference call. There’s the chubby, witty computer whiz Ken (Jacob Wysocki); the cranky, crude blonde Jess (Renee Olstead); Jess’s hot-headed, drunken boyfriend Adam (Will Peltz), and an anonymous stranger. Of course, strange things start to happen and secrets are unveiled when Laura Burns’ social media accounts become active on the anniversary of her suicide. When the group suspects that Val Rommel (Courtney Halverson) might be impersonating the deceased, they call her to join the conference call. But embarrassing pictures of drunken partying are uploaded to social media. Is someone playing a cruel prank from the account of the dead girl or is the ghost of Laura Barns actually seeking revenge through social media?
Unfriended is both a throwback to the moralistic slasher films, where teens are slain following engaging in sex and drugs, and is very much a part of the modern horror fare that confuses startling the audience with actually scaring them. It’s a film that punishes its characters for their bad behavior, all of them guilty of premarital sex, underage drinking, or smoking weed. But the film fails to scare, using moments of digitized glitches with jarring, startling sound instead of creating moments of genuine terror.
But while the film didn’t fill me with any sense of terror or dread, for an entire generation of teens who’ve captured private moments on their devices, this might be the scariest flick ever. And for the most part, Unfriended carries itself with enough authenticity in matters of the internet. However, the film includes one unmistakably hilarious moment when Blaire asks, “What’s a troll?” For a film that takes place entirely on a computer screen, which has every character involved immersed in technology and social networks, it’s an attempt to reach out to an audience that would be absolutely repelled by the film and its gimmick – old people.
Working from a script by Nelson Greaves, director Levan Gabriadze is remarkably dedicated to the gimmick that the entire film take place on a single laptop screen. That dedication, however, leads to some real problems with pacing. I’m sorry, but instant messaging and Google searches aren’t inherently cinematic, and Gabriadze doesn’t attempt to make these moments more engaging. Where the film really drops the ball with its premise is when the escalation of events and the revealing of intimate secrets leads to 4 white kids yelling at each other over Skype. It’s horrifying in a completely different way than intended.
Unfriended is a Blumhouse film through and through. It’s a film that has an intriguing concept, middling execution, and was made on the cheap. None of that is necessarily a knock, per se, more just an admission that even though I love that Blumhouse is a production company churning out low-budget genre films that open doors for young writers and directors, it hasn’t consistently released entertaining or engaging genre fare. Unfriended is step above the rest in terms of found footage cinema, and that’s just about it. Most of all, Unfriended is a film that can’t figure out if it wants to be a fun exploitation movie or a serious horror film about bullying. Had it made a stand in either direction, Unfriended would be something more than just alright.