Think about this. We go into movies every week (at least I do) and watch other people go through things on a screen. They aren’t actually in front of us; a screen is, but it still creates a convincing illusion that we are there with the characters. So then, why is it that Unfriended feels so… different? Well, it takes that notion of watching people on a screen go through things and puts them on a screen… literally. Taking place entirely on the screen of main character Blaire’s MacBook, this new squirm-in-your-seat tension-fest tackles the theme of cyberbullying, sincerely conveying a look at how teens currently connect, converse, and coerce.
The script begins with Blaire (Shelley Hennig) logging onto her laptop, which is the POV for the entirety of the film. She watches a YouTube video of a former classmate, Laura Barnes, committing suicide in a local park and then proceeds to look at a few news articles, which were written to prove that her suicide was a result of cyberbullying. As is the case with so many suicides in America, this particular case was caused because a video was posted online while Laura was drunk and making, shall we say, poor decisions.
Laura goes to Spotify and picks a tune, opens social networking sites, then opens Skype. Here’s where it gets good. As she is Skyping with five of her friends, a mysterious user seems to be in their chat, bearing the never-ominous-until-now Skype default user icon. When they try to investigate (at first believing that it’s a joke put on by one of them), they discover that the user is operating from, (you guessed it), Laura’s account. What’s even more mysterious is the fact that this is all taking place on the anniversary of Laura’s death. So then, the movie becomes a game of secret-revealing and intercrossing relational humiliation as this “user” pushes these “friends” to their breaking point and beyond.
But it isn’t some bloodcurdling antagonist that makes it scary. It’s clear from the start that Laura is meant to be the antagonistic figure, the posters hinting at potential possession and violent attacks. While that stuff does creep into the film, it isn’t what stands out. As I left the theater, I wasn’t thinking about how scary Laura was, nor was I thinking about how brutal the death sequences were (they weren’t that brutal). No, the most impressive, and the eeriest thing about Unfriended is just how authentic it feels from the perspective of someone that lives and breathes internet.
Whether we would like to come to terms with it or not, the internet is coming close to defining our lives nowadays, with virtually every form of human connection being matched with some form of virtual connection as well. Sometimes we even discover human connection by way of the internet (dating sites, etc.) As Unfriended played out, I was at once interested in what Laura was going to do next, but I couldn’t help but feel chilled by the authenticity of the film’s virtual setup.
This is a film that is lacking a soundtrack but it becomes almost entirely unnoticeable because the realism of the sound effects makes for some terrifying background noise. We see Blaire open Facebook, type a DM, and send it, met by the actual Messenger alert tone. We see Blaire type messages through iMessage, which are sent and received with the swoosh tone that we all know. And as I’ve already mentioned, Skype plays a pivotal role in the movie, and the default icon that is used for Laura’s account steadily evolves into something scary, and that is accomplishment in my book.
Even the small things matter, the close attention to detail that the filmmakers were able to capture. The YouTube videos were on realistic YouTube pages, with recommended videos along the side panel and a visible amount of “Likes” and “Dislikes.” Also, the way the MacBook operated, with Blaire dragging the cursor to the left, opening up a panel of applications, just made it feel like we were operating her laptop and seeing everything in real time.
But not even the attention to technical detail is the strongest (scariest?) element of Unfriended. What I found most appealing about it was just how accurately it captured this generation of youth, flawlessly depicting online conversations and cyberbullying in a frighteningly realistic fashion. There are moments in the film in which Blaire types out messages (via iMessage, Facebook Messenger, etc.) and then highlights them and deletes them. This happens often, and it’s an extremely clever way to give us a look inside her head, which couldn’t have been done with any other less creative method.
I won’t conclude this incontestably positive review without mentioning the fact that this is a flawed movie. I liked it (in fact, I think it’s safe to say that I loved it), but that doesn’t change the fact that it does suffer from clichés (story and characters), blatant predictability, and sententious message delivery. That being said, I think all the actors (while not top notch performers) make each of their characters likable in their own ways, and in a movie that requires “actors” to feel like inexperienced kids Skyping, maybe “top notch performers” aren’t even necessary.
Rated R for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use – all involving teens
Starring Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Will Peltz
Written by Nelson Greaves
Directed by Levan Gabriadze