by Hope Madden
Director Levon Gabriadze, with serious help from screenwriter Nelson Greaves, has managed the unmanageable. His entire film Unfriended is seen from a laptop screen, yet never gets visually dull and never feels limited by the gimmick.
More than that, his film is immersed in the digital-native culture without seeming forced or hokey. Without ever feeling like a stunt – a story in service of a device rather than vice versa – Unfriended tells a cautionary tale that’s topical, current and smart.
Five high school friends mindlessly Skype on the anniversary of their friend Laura’s suicide. Laura had been the victim of cyberbullying, and not only is her humiliation still available online, so is her suicide. Such is the horrifyingly public world of today’s teen.
The gang can’t seem to get rid of an anonymous 6th in their hangout, and little by little the presence evolves from annoying to aggravating to terrifying.
Greaves’s script is smart. There are flashes of other films – The Den, Paranormal Activity 4 and others – but Unfriended never feels stale. Greaves’s language is so unsettlingly familiar, and he makes some important points without even approaching a preachy tone.
It’s a set of familiar ideas – vengeance, guilt, betrayal, cowardice – wrapped in a very shiny new package, and it’s the wrapping that could have really gone wrong, but Gabriadze succeeds in filling the screen with enough to look at, enough virtual action to keep your attention.
He builds tensions through a truth or dare style game that provokes the friends to turn on each other, but the film has more empathy for the characters than the run of the mill slasher. The five actors manage to flesh out dimensional characters with the slightest material to work with, and each feels realistically flawed yet sympathetic.
It’s a fascinating choice because the whole film flirts with the ugly “they aren’t bad kids” excuse you hear every time a 7th grader is filmed being gang raped or an autistic child’s bullying goes viral.
These five don’t think they’re bad people. They certain seem like nice enough, likeable enough teens – to everyone except that creepy lurker on their screen.