Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Movie Review: Unfriended

Directed by: Leo Gabriadze.
Written by: Nelson Greaves.
Starring: Shelley Hennig (Blaire), Moses Jacob Storm (Mitch Roussel), Will Peltz (Adam Sewell), Renee Olstead (Jess Felton), Jacob Wysocki (Ken Smith), Courtney Halverson (Val Rommel), Heather Sossaman (Laura Barns).

The plot of Unfriended is about as clich├ęd as teen horror movies can be. A group of friends are harassed and killed off, one by one, by either the ghost of their friend or someone pretending to be them exactly one year after that friend committed suicide, because of cyberbullying that each of these six idiot teenagers played a role in. It is in no way a new plot – but then what’s novel about Unfriended isn’t the plot or the characters – but the ingenious way the movie was made. The entirety of the film takes place on a single laptop – as the main character, Blaire (Shelley Hennig) jumps from one website, app or program to another – Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, iChat, Chatroulette and mostly Skype. A flirtatious two way call between Blaire and her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) is interrupted when their four friends join – and most scary of all, some unknown seventh party – with just the blank, generic icon as a picture. This person doesn’t show themselves and doesn’t say anything – not out loud anyway – and it is impossible to get rid of them. Whoever this person is, they know all the group`s secrets, and wants to expose them to the rest of the group, and everyone else online, before eliminating them.

You could dismiss Unfriended as a gimmick if you wanted it. It isn’t quite the first film to use this type of setup and execution (I didn’t see Open Windows or The Den, which apparently did something similar, but I did see Joe Swanberg’s segment in VHS, which also took place on Skype, although I spent most of that`s shorts running time confused as to how a Skype chat ended up on VHS) – but in its complete commitment to its premise, Unfriended finds interesting new takes on very old ways of scaring the audience of a horror movie. Director Leo Gabriadze has Blaire multitasking – going from one window to another, flipping between all the different programs, and doling out more information to the audience, than Blaire chooses to share with any of her friends. It is also a good way to avoid too much exposition – as old YouTube videos or Facebook pages, conveniently doled out over the runtime of the movie, give us all the backstory we need. Through his creative use of the flaws in programs like Skype – the momentary lost connections or moments when the screen is buffering, or becomes pixelated as it refreshes, Gabriadze is able to ramp up the tension. In many respects the scares in the movie are the same that have been working on audiences for decades – dim lighting and limited perspective combined with the effective tropes of the found footage genre – rapid camera movement as someone who is holding the camera drops it, and we end up staring at a wall, unsure of what happened. It`s in using these old tropes in new ways that makes Unfriended such an entertaining movie to watch.

It also helps that the film moves so quickly. The film barely runs 80 minutes, and it doesn’t waste a lot of them. After the setup is established, the movie pretty much puts the pedal to the metal, and runs quickly through a deadly game of “Never Have I Ever” which exposes each of the characters minor and major betrayals of their friends. These six kids enter the movie as blank slates – but we start rooting for them, if only because how do you root for a killer. But gradually they expose themselves for who they really are – self-involved, little sociopaths – or in other words, normal teenagers. The movie doesn’t really have much to say about its nominal subject – Cyberbullying, other than that its wrong and you shouldn’t do it. But the film does have a little bit more to say about teenagers, and living life online, where everyone shares everything and yet nothing, and nobody takes anything they say or do online seriously. Blaire pleads with whoever is harassing them in increasingly frantic Facebook posts telling them that "We`re good people"- but the other side seems unconvinced of this fact, and most in the audience will probably agree with that. But while they aren’t good people, they are normal – which is probably the scariest thing about Unfriended.

Yes, Unfriended is a gimmick movie – and no, it’s not an overly original horror movie in terms of story or characters. It also isn’t all that scary to be honest – once the premise is established, we know what’s going to happen, and it happens pretty much as you expect it to. But it’s still an original movie – a new way of making a film, and one of the other films in all the years since The Blair Witch Project that found new ways to tell a found footage story (Paranormal Activity is another). The film also moves with lightning speed, and had me entertained from beginning to end. In short, I had a blast with Unfriended – which is really all you can ask of movie like this.

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