While video chatting one night, six high school friends receive a Skype message from a classmate who killed herself exactly one year ago. At first they think it’s a prank, but when the girl starts revealing the friends’ darkest secrets, they realize they are dealing with something out of this world, something that wants them dead.
Kids these days have it so easy. When I was a teen, there were no such things as cellphones, personal computers, iPods, iPads, 24 hr TV (with over 1000 channels from which to choose from), etc, etc. We hadda rough it with payphones, cassette players, vinyl records, and most importantly – personal communication. We actually chose to physically hang out with each other, rather than use our cell phones to text/message each other. We actually enjoyed each other’s company for the most part, and if/when there was a problem – we just beat each other up. Nowadays, when teens have issues with each other, they mercilessly slag each other on social media outlets (most of the time anyway). As a father of a 13 yr old boy, I have a front seat to all of the machinations that teens go through nowadays. Although my son is a voracious reader (real books mind you. None of that digital book nonsense), he often has his face planted in front of a video monitor, or on his cell phone – talking to various friends. The creators of Unfriended know exactly the kind of teens I’m talking about, and have crafted an interesting, but ultimately disposable film regarding teens and their slavish devotion to digital communication.
Laura Berns (Heather Sossamon) got drunk and passed out at a party 1 year ago. As she lay unconscious on the ground, she soiled herself. Someone took video of her laid out & soiled, and then posted it to the internet. After being mercilessly ridiculed over the video, Laura committed suicide by shooting herself in the mouth. Of course, someone was filming the suicide, and that video was posted to the internet as well. On the anniversary of her demise, a group of Laura’s friends, Blaire (Shelley Hennig), Val (Courtney Halverson), Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Adam (Will Peltz), Jess (Renee Olstead) and Ken (Jacob Wysocki), get together for an impromptu video chat which suddenly turns into a cat & mouse game between themselves and someone who suddenly commandeers both the conversation and all the computers in use by the teens. Someone who claims to be Laura Berns. And Laura wants to know which one of them is responsible for filming her passed out and soiled on the ground. And Laura (or whomever it really is) seems to have the power to make people kill themselves when she isn’t happy with their answers…
Unfriended plays out in an initially off putting manner, but upon further reflection it’s actually perfectly designed to appeal to teens. The entire movie takes place on Blaire’s computer screen, with the others occupying chat windows on her screen. Since the film takes place on a computer screen, it’s also subject to a variety of digital hiccups – the kind of glitches we’re all accustomed to seeing while online. Actually, the thing that impressed me the most about the film is the brilliant idea behind it. Unfriended tells a fairly decent story in the most economical way possible. There are no real sets that are in use during the film (Everyone is in their room, but we only see their faces for the most part. For all we know, the actors could be sitting in front of backdrops). No flashy special effects or gaudy cinematography either. Unfriended exists in a cinematic universe all to itself, and it should be applauded for that.
As the film progresses, Laura begins to play with the groups sense of loyalty to each other. In doing so, she manages to turn them against each other by forcing them to admit to betraying each other in various ways. The game she plays (called “Never Have I Ever“) takes up the majority of the film and interestingly enough, manages to be fairly taut & involving. The manner in which the game decidedly destroys the bond of trust that the group believed it shared is both dastardly and well played out. The acting is uniformly good, although much of it is comprised of the teens screaming at each other – still all of the actors fit into their roles neatly. As Blaire, Hennig is ostensibly the star of the film and she does a good job of making the audience believe that she’s the virginal, innocent of the group. Storm plays Blaire’s jock boyfriend, Mitch, with equal amounts of braggadocio & geniality. Halverson and Olstead give Val & Jess the proper balance of haughtiness and sass. Wysocki plays Ken, the computer whiz, just as you’d expect it to be played – maybe with a bit more arrogance though. Personally, I think the best performance comes from Will Peltz as Adam. Adam is the resident bad boy of the group, someone who sells weed, and owns a firearm. He looks a little bit like Joaquin Phoenix and his bug eyed reactions to some of the later revelations in the film are priceless.
While Unfriended is far from perfect, it does exactly what it sets out to do. It also knows exactly who its audience is comprised of, and is unabashedly aimed at teens age 13-18. I saw it last year on its festival run, when it was called Cybernatural (the new title is much better), and it has a different ending now than it did then. Upon doing some research, I discovered that there were more than a few different endings filmed before they decided on the current one. Personally, I preferred the ending I saw last year but the one in place now is decent enough. There are some silly mistakes that come up and are summarily ignored (How does everyone’s computer stay on after the power in their homes is cut off? Why do all of the kids have computers with processors faster than NASA computers have?). But I didn’t really think too much about any of that as I was watching. Although the film isn’t aimed at audiences my age, I was still fairly engrossed in what was going on. As I said in the beginning of this review – it is interesting, but ultimately disposable. You’ll forget all about it soon after seeing it.
Unless you’re a teen. In which case you’ll tell all of your friends about it, and they’ll tell their friends, and so on. I took my son to see it and his reaction is pretty much the one I expect all kids his age will have…
He was genuinely terrified.
And that’s exactly what Unfriended sets out to do to kids his age. So in that sense – it’s a complete success.
Unfriended – 3 out of 5 shrouds.