“Unfriended” is nothing to look at — just a notebook computer screen, pages folded into pages of a teenager’s night of instant messaging, video chatting, Google searching, music streaming, Youtube watching and Facebooking.
A tale told in real time, it’s pretty uncinematic.
But what it has is a great gimmick, a play on the meme “The Internet is Forever.” What if every digital indiscretion a group of Fresno high schoolers’ ever uploaded was accessed and shoved into their faces? What if the entity assaulting them, revealing their worst moments, their lies and infidelities, was someone they knew who was cyber-bullied to death?
The logical online extension of “The Blair Witch Project,” “Paranormal Activity” and “The Ring,” “Unfriended” begins with “Laura Burns Kill Urself,” a Youtube video of a suicide. Blaire (Shelly Hennig of “Oujia”), whose computer we are seeing this through, knew Laura (Heather Sossaman).
Blaire’s multi-tasking, of course, video stripping for her boyfriend Matt (Moses Jacob Storm). They’re interrupted when several friends jump into the conversation. What are you two doing?
“Going to hell with the rest of us,” Jess (Renee Olstead of “The Secret Life of an American Teenager”). Jess is in charge of foreshadowing.
Because nobody invited them into Blaire and Matt’s supposedly private moment. And there’s a person they don’t know logged in with them. “That creeper Skype dude?” Maybe.
But she says she’s Laura Burns. And before they can all link to a “Do not answer messages from the dead!” website warning, they’re trapped online with someone-something that wants to confront them, turn them on each other and punish them.
“If you hang up,” the words blip up on an instant message, “your friends die.”
Director Levan Gabriadze has a limited field of view to work with — essentially what half a dozen computer cameras, and the occasional previously-uploaded video can see — and a limited ambition — to create “dead teenagers,” one by one. His young actors, playing cardboard cutouts (nerd, popular Romeo, oversexed blonde), emote and panic front of a camera through long takes.
It’s up to the viewer to pick out which inserted screen to watch. The menace is more implied than explicit, and the effect tends to dissipate tension. There are reasons the camera is supposed to direct your eye to a certain place, even in the ADHD era.
We can laugh at the banal/profane banter, kids barking at their peers for not knowing “how the email works” when they can’t figure out how to forward a Gmail.
But we don’t really feel for anybody, including the original victim, whose cyber-bullying originated in a humiliating video that begins with her drunkenly threatening somebody at a party.
The subtext — beware what privacy you give up when you post, and don’t IM with strangers — is familiar, but nothing remotely as biting and poignant as the sex-can-kill-you-and-make-you-a-killer message of the superior and just as cheap, “It Follows.”
All we’re really in the end is the gimmick and an appreciation for how cleverly it comes off. And a reminder to not “answer messages from the dead.”
MPAA Rating: R for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use – all involving teens
Cast: Shelley Hennig, Heather Sossaman, Moses Jacob Storm, Jacob Wysocki, Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Courtney Halverson
Credits: Directed by Levan Gabriadze, written by Nelson Greaves. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:21