Monday, May 4, 2015

Unfriended

3/4

Starring: Shelly Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson, Will Peltz

Rated R for Violent Content, Pervasive Language, Some Sexuality and Drug and Alcohol Use

"Unfriended" may be the most innovative movie since "Memento."  Make that the most innovative movie since "Memento" that actually works, since there are dozens of failed experiments like "November" from the past 15 years.  The film takes place almost entirely on the computer screen of its lead character; we see what she sees, and that adds another level of tension to the film.  The plot, about a group of friends whose sins of the past come back to visit them (literally) isn't the pinnacle of originality, but that's okay.  Horror movies generally aren't known for deep and complex plots.  The genius is in the construction.

Blair (Hennig) is chatting with her boyfriend Mitch (Storm) via Skype (a cynical person might say that this is essentially one long product placement for the video calling company, but I don't think so, and even if it is, it's worth it because it's not highlighted and is necessary to the plot).  Just as things are starting to heat up, they're suddenly joined by their friends Jess (Olstead), Adam (Peltz) and Ken (Wysocki). Their friend Val (Halverson) joins them later.  It's a typical night for them, but they notice that there is a mysterious visitor in their chat that won't go away. They think its a glitch and eventually ignore it.  But when they start getting messages from Laura Barns, a classmate who committed suicide exactly one year ago, they start getting creeped out.

For "Unfriended," presentation is everything.  The entire film takes place in chat windows and video calls.  I was intrigued, but thought it was probably going to be a gimmick.  I was wrong.  Not only does it follow through on its promise of never (save for one minor exception) leaving the computer screen, director Leo Gabriadze finds ways to make this serve the story, rather than the other way around.  For example, the group chat is muted and placed in the background when Blair enters a private chat.  And computer lag hasn't been this tense outside of waiting to see if a tax return went through or not.

Like many faux-documentaries, "Unfriended" uses anonymous actors rather than big stars to enhance the verisimilitude (there are even Facebook ads, although one image of another Facebook friend is used under two different names).  All are effective and give realistic portrayals; it's easy to believe that they are high school students (this isn't a case of "The Blair Witch Project; all have pretty extensive resumes on TV and indie films).  However, they're not very charismatic, which makes it difficult to really form a bond with them.  Whether it's that the over-exposure of the style (which has been going on since "The Blair Witch Project" came out in 1999) has caused the effect to wear off, the writing, or the acting, the result is a horror film that keeps the audience at an arm's distance.  The only actor who has the charisma is Will Peltz, who plays Adam the future frat boy.  He's pretty good.

"Unfriended" is certainly not devoid of tension, but its pleasures mainly come from seeing how the film is going to use social media as a filmmaking tool.  Storywise, it's not airtight, and there's a scene that is amusing when I'm pretty sure it was never intended to be viewed as such.  But it's still definitely worth checking out.

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