Face to Face: Gabriadze’s Topical Mutation of Technological Terror
How effectively chilling it is may be arguable. But there’s no denying that Levan Gabriadze’s English language debut Unfriended manages to be clever and somewhat topically meaningful in the age of cyberbullying on social media apps that have chained humans unwittingly to being constantly recorded, in some sense, at nearly every waking moment. Produced by Timur Bekmambetov, the film premiered as Cybernatural (too kitschy for the cool kids) at the 2014 Fantasia Film Festival, its fascination with and deliberate technological framing manage to meld found-footage aesthetics with the attention span of the real-time generation. Screenwriter Nelson Greave’s plot feels kind of similar to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s creepy 2001 internet ghost film Pulse (which got a US redo in 2006), but manages to keep an adept, impressive focus on all the action taking place from the perspective of one character’s home screen.
A year ago, high school student Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) killed herself via a self-inflected gunshot. We watch the act on a grainy footage posted on a YouTube equivalent and a post with the video informs us that the act was in response to online bullying due to a video of drunken Laura that was distributed over social media apps and severely damaged her reputation. Our consumption of these videos is interrupted by a Skype call from Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), calling to speak with his girlfriend Blaire (Shelley Hennig), who was watching the video. They talk about obnoxious teenage stuff, planning their first bout of sexual intercourse for prom night (yawn) and engage in strangely aggressive flirtation before being interrupted by a trio of schoolmates on Skype, including trashy good time gal Jess (Renee Olstead), Blaire’s other pseudo love interest Adam (Will Peltz), and the class clown Ken (Jacob Wysocki, star of the film Terri). Some other anonymous profile seems to be eavesdropping on them, which the teen quicly deduce is someone or something that thinks these friends may have been responsible for poor Laura’s demise.
Perhaps what’s most shocking about Unfriended is how accustomed we’ve become to interacting with the world through the use of a computer screen, therefore making this film’s visual platform palatable. While several character’s actions tend to frustrate, the framing device never becomes prohibitive to their predicament, though sometimes it becomes questionable whether these teens are fully utilizing all their options (does anyone remember Neve Campbell calling 911 from the computer in Scream?) since a bizarre sequence using Chat Roulette for help seems more an effort to waste time than a telling metaphor about how technology has only further detached us from the capability for empathy or alarm. Still, despite the banality of its dramatic mystery, which ends with a final shot that’s as lazy as it is silly, Unfriended is several notches above other recent tech perspective thrillers, like The Den (2013).
As far as its plot goes, Unfriended is unabashedly cynical. None of these five teens are above certain reproach, and Greave injects a bit of elitism in here (our protagonist suggests that the other two girls shouldn’t engage in physical altercation simply because that would be ghetto). The more we learn about them as the vengeful supernatural entity toys with them, the less we like any of them, which inadvertently seems to defeat the purpose as they get dispatched in And Then There Were None style. And to question the film’s rationale often seems pointless (why does Laura’s ghost have to wait until the first year anniversary to wreak havoc?), while each teen feels like a rough composite of stereotypes, not unlike the group of kids surrounding Stephen King’s Carrie.
The performances are all routinely amusing, with a host of scathing remarks and commentaries (particularly from the more antagonizing females played by Courtney Halverson and Renee Olstead). And despite impressive tech credits with all things considered as we basically watch Blaire go back and forth between portals for eighty minutes, Unfriended feels like the 2013 Dutch film App, a new way to incorporate (or dominate) film language with modern technology that will shortly be eclipsed by something savvier.