Silver Screen: Unfriended ****
The freaky indie flick It Follows was supposed to be the hidden horror gem of the season, with its high concept, languid pacing, and treasure trove of homages and allusions to 1980s slasher fare. But an even more improbable contender has appeared to take the title of 2015’s most pleasant surprise so far. Boasting both a concept and title that appear to grasp for timeliness, Unfriended looks like another hasty, lazy genre cash in. (The most promising element of the movie is that the filmmakers didn’t stick with their even sillier working title, Cybernatural.)
Unfriended’s gimmick seems utterly untenable, or at the very least unwatchable. The entire movie plays out on a single laptop screen in real time. The actors only appear via webcam footage as they chat from their respective bedrooms during a group Skype session. During the downtime between the chats, the audience is captive as the owner of said laptop, high-school senior Blaire (Shelley Hennig), scrolls through her social-media sites, searches Google, and loads songs onto her playlist.
This sounds a bit like torture for anyone exhausted by the surfeit of glowing screens in their life, or fogeys-at-heart like myself who bristle at the latest generation of whippersnappers with their heads bowed down away from the real world to focus on its online equivalent. And for the first few minutes, it is frustrating to watch passively as someone else moves a cursor around the screen and types too slowly while the too-familiar bleep-bloop sounds of incoming emails and messages chime in the background.
The format becomes less distracting as a story begins to take shape. The crew of high-school pals— including Blaire, her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm), angry rich kid Adam (Will Peltz), stoner goofball Ken (Jacob Wysocki), and squabbling frenemies Jess and Val (Renee Olstead and Courtney Halverson)— notice that an anonymous extra person has joined their group discussion. The mystery user has no avatar and communicates only by typing, but all their account information leads back to Laura Barns, a fellow classmate who committed suicide exactly one year ago after a shaming video of her was posted online.
The real-time laptop screen gimmick comes with plenty of limitations, but resourceful screenwriter Nelson Graves and director Levan Gabriadze find clever shortcuts in the approach. Glimpses of the characters’ Facebook profiles and Google search histories help fill in the backstory without resorting to clunky exposition. The ability to see what Blaire types and edits before she sends a message to her friends deftly provides a window to her thinking and fleshes out her character. A website warning about the dangers of ghosts manipulating technology serves as a primer on the rules of digital possession.
Gabriadze takes his time establishing the laptop motif and the characters’ shared history. The slow burn builds to a blaze once the mysterious online presence begins to exert physical control of our doomed group. Here again Gabriadze uses the potential drawbacks of the gimmick to his advantage. Every dropped call and frozen screen becomes weighted with suspense. Mundane gadget frustration turns tantalizing. The mounting hysteria instigates a dual level of claustrophobia as the characters are both trapped in their Skype session but also isolated in their respective rooms.
As for those characters, they never feel like they would fare well outside the chat windows. The script barely even attempts to explain why such a mismatched crew would even be friends. But the naturalistic elements of found-footage movies helps smooth out clunky acting and characterizations, and that applies here, too. (To further enhance the movie’s faux-reality, some viewers have already pirated copies and claim that it’s best watched on an actual laptop screen.)
Unfriended succeeds through the perfect marriage of gimmick and plot. Undoubtedly its inextricable intertwining with technology will render it dated sooner rather than later, but its du jour nature is part of its appeal, right down to its warning about the dangers of cyberbullying, which is incorporated with surprising thoughtfulness. The dominant terror of the movie is not ghosts, but rather the fear that your own dark secrets might be put on public display.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.