Thursday, April 16, 2015

Dying IRL: "Unfriended" clicks as a timely freak-out

Unfriended (2015)
82 min., rated R. 

Just when horror fans were ready to put a moratorium on any more found-footage movies comes the micro-budgeted "Unfriended," a cautionary cyber-horror film with a point of condemnation to make. Picked up by tireless producer Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions ("Paranormal Activity," "Insidious," "Sinister," et al.), the film is indeed a gripping ride, with jolts and vicarious thrills to satisfy the millennial horror crowd, but not for the reasons one might expect. Several movies (2013's "Disconnect," 2014's "Men, Women & Children" and "uwantme2killhim?") have dealt with the impact of cyberbullying through the 21st-century's ubiquitous social media, but in a horror setting, "Unfriended" (formerly known as "Cybernatural," which was judiciously scrapped) is a gimmick that really works. It's cynical and disturbing, yet fun.  

"Unfriended" unfolds entirely in real time (and boldly so) on the Mac computer screen of Fresno high schooler Blaire (Shelley Hennig) on the one-year anniversary of friend Laura Barns' (Heather Sossaman) suicide. In the middle of an intimate private Skype chat with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), they accept a group chat from their five friends, Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and Val (Courtney Halverson). When an unknown user, dubbed "billie227," logged into Laura's Skype account is also in on the chat, the six friends think it must be a glitch or a sick joke by a hacker. Then, Blaire starts receiving messages on Facebook from Laura's old account. By the end of the night, all of them are tormented and forced to unload their dirty little secrets to one another in order to stay alive. The anonymous posting of an embarrassing YouTube video of a sloppy, passed-out Laura at a party pushed the girl to take her own life, and if the person on the other side really is Laura or just an Internet troll with revenge on the brain, all of them are going to pay.

The brainchild of "Wanted"/"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" director Timur Bekmambetov (who produces), "Unfriended" has a humdinger of a premise, that of a vengeful ghost commandeering her frenemies' computers, with its supernatural underpinnings never (over)explained. It's essentially a haunted-Skype chamber piece, characters hooked to their webcams, or else, that will make ideal home viewing on a laptop. Director Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves are not old fogies because they accurately capture the mundane nature of surfing the Internet, checking Facebook wall posts, choosing a song on a Spotify playlist, watching YouTube videos, self-editing one's own instant messages and, altogether, multi-tasking with multiple tabs. For those hoping to rip holes in the film's premise and call the on-screen characters "dumbasses" for not just signing off Skype, the film establishes that Blaire and her friends can't call the police or get rid of Laura with an antivirus software; that would be too easy. It's not the most logical film in the world, but director Gabriadze and screenwriter Greaves swing things into such a fever pitch that being captivated by one giant Skype screen outweighs any contrivance used to bend the rules of human behavior a bit.

Despite its often-annoying aesthetics (i.e. distorted feedback and frozen screens, back-and-forth of browsers, grammatically erroneous keystrokes), "Unfriended" has its finger on the pulse on where we are in the present. Even when it's in a close-knit but two-faced group of teenage friends, bullying is even more prevalent with one click of a button, whether it's posting a picture on a Facebook wall or uploading a video on YouTube. It's no joke, just cruelty. Across the board, there are no heroes or villains in any of the Skype chat boxes, not even ghost-in-the-machine Laura Barns (who comes off combative when she was alive), but they are all sitting ducks. The film is believably acted, considering all of the cast members are in their mid- and late-twenties and playing self-involved high school students whose interactions seem unscripted and extemporaneous, but no one is as impressive as Shelley Hennig (2014's "Ouija") as Blaire. If we're going by teen stereotypes, she is the "good girl," but even that label gets turned on its head. Hennig is most likable, despite Blaire's horrible mistakes, and is up to the task of selling a sense of distress, hysteria, and guilt when her and her friends' lives are at stake. Jacob Wysocki (2011's "Terri") and Will Peltz (2014's "Men, Women & Children") are the only other recognizable faces, aside from Hennig, and they do what they can as bowl-smoking computer whiz Ken and rich, cocky jackass Adam, respectively.

Frighteningly timely, savvily conceived, if not wholly successful, "Unfriended" has modest goals and achieves them. It may not be the game-changer for the found-footage subgenre as casual moviegoers might give it credit for (2014's "The Den" and "Open Windows" blazed the trail in the indie world), but it's unnerving on its own. What director Leo Gabriadze lacks in his silly, jolt-ready final shot makes up for it beforehand with shrewd touches, not to mention the entire technical process of long 80-minute takes. For one, the drinking game, "Never Have I Ever," gets turned into a maliciously motivated airing out of unforgivable dirty laundry that makes enemies out of friends and shows everyone's true colors, and the use of Connie Conway's "How You Lie, Lie, Lie" on Blaire's Spotify playlist has wickedly ironic timing. "Unfriended" isn't going to put a stop to cyberbullying, however, at least this nastily effective freak-out isn't just an empty-headed slasher pic but in with the zeitgeist and has something on its mind. 

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