My expectations were low for Blumhouse Productions’ latest release, “Unfriended.” The premise — teens haunted by the ghost of a cyber-bullied classmate — seems as if it would run out of steam before the opening credits conclude. And did I mention it’s another found-footage film? There are lots of red flags here. And yet, “Unfriended” defies expectations, being a lean, smart and satisfying horror-thriller.
The English-language debut of Russian director Levan Gabriadze, “Unfriended” manages the rare cinematic feat of showing a true understanding of social media and its use. Without this, the film would crash hard. See, the entirety of the narrative is told in real time in one continuous (manufactured) shot: the computer screen of teen dream Blaire (Shelley Hennig) as a night spent chatting with friends on Skype turns hellish, chaining her to her laptop and threatening her life.
This curious experiment could’ve been a deadly dull device — after all, who wants to see a teen fiddle on her computer for an hour and a half? Instead, however, the sharp script by Nelson Greaves (Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow”) effectively puts audiences in the place of our protagonist. No tech dum-dum, Blaire deftly multitasks between windows, Skyping in one, picking her soundtrack (and the film’s) in Spotify, then messaging privately to her boyfriend (Moses Jacob Storm) … and possibly Facebooking with dead girl Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman). When Blaire becomes frustrated with mysterious messages, we share in her anxiety. When she types replies, pauses and then erases them and revises, we witness her thought process unfold on screen, character by character.
When an unknown user invades their group chat, the friends are first angry, then spooked because they can’t shake this blank avatar. As tensions rise, everyday elements of online life become harbingers of doom. The blank avatar’s dominance in their chat mocks the teens, whose live streams show them screaming as the haunting heats up. Video glitches turn their faces horrific, their surroundings uncertain. A Spotify gone wild turns up cryptic songs that Blaire can’t mute, drowning her out. And Facebook alerts have never been so ominous.
You might wonder why, if they’re so frightened by this cybernatural bully, they don’t simply bail on the call. Because if you do, you die; hanging in is the only way to bargain for your life. That clever device completely justifies “Unfriended’s” found-footage aspect. Plus, it keeps this 82-minute thriller tautly tense, locking us in with its characters as they face the wrath of a girl pushed first into public shaming, then to a very public suicide.
As much as screeching teens wear on the nerves, the ensemble cast (that also includes Jacob Wysocki, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz and Courtney Halverson) manages to bring enough depth to their characters to make them feel real and worth worrying about. Through natural performances and believable teen dialogue, we quickly pick up enough about Blaire and her friends to understand the group dynamic, and engage with their plight. However, Hennig is a standout.
As others curse, cry and lash out at their mysterious tormenter, Blaire shoulders the emotional arc, expressing not just fear at her situation, but also empathy for the lost Laura, and ultimately regret. In unrelenting close-ups, Hennig gives us an emotional roller coaster in a riveting performance that helps keep “Unfriended” electric and exciting all the way to its chilling climax.
Ultimately, “Unfriended” becomes a twisted “Afterschool Special,” warning teens about the dangers of the Internet and bullying in the same histrionic way slasher flicks of the 1980s cautioned against promiscuity. Its modern message — while well-intentioned — may be a bit heavy-handed, but it’s difficult to be too bothered when Gabriadze offers such a tight and spooky experience.
”Unfriended” opens today nationwide.
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