“Well who the f*** is Billie?
Unfriended is why I still use Netscape Navigator. Keeps things simple. In this film, a group of six high school friends presumably spend many of their nights talking about teen things. As trivial and nonsensical they may be, they are important to people at this age. But this group probably uses Hangouts as much as, if not more, than they actually physically hang out. They are very much products of the online environment today.
But on one night, they all converge online, and creepy occurrences begin to happen, initiated by an uninvited user named “Billie” who has happened to interject themselves into their inner circle. What is more bizarre is that Billie is claiming to be Laura Barns, the deceased girl who committed suicide exactly a year ago. Is this some type of cruel prank being done by one of the friends? Or is Laura, from beyond the grave, serving a cold and digital dish of revenge?
Teens. Something that resembles found footage. Horror. Put these three tropes together, and one would probably expect Unfriended to offer nothing different than other horrors of recent years. Yours truly certainly made this assumption after seeing the trailer. While it does share a few similarities to other films in the genre, Unfriended actually manages to dial-up its own path, making it a relatively fresh and effective horror.
All of the marketing of this movie focused and keyed in on the uber-online environment that defines much of the world, and especially teens’ worlds, today. To be honest, I only expected the trailers showcasing Skype to be a part (a significant one, sure, but just a part) of the movie. From the moment the Universal logo appears on screen in glitches and segues into the feature presentation, the entire presentation is shot from a computer. As a movie-going audience, we are already watchers of others, but this goes another level here, like a hybrid viewpoint of first-person and second-person. While probably not the first to do this, the fact that it is the first to do this that received a wide release makes it something of a trailblazer.
Cinematically, it sounds like it would not work, and truth be told it may take a while to adjust to this style of filmmaking and storytelling. A score doesn’t even exist, but all of the Facebook message sounds, keyboard strokes, and other media auditory cues basically fill the void of one. There’s even a nice visual style of utilizing the distortion and glitchiness that comes from an unstable Internet connection to show the true, distorted nature of the main characters. Credit goes to director Levan Gabriadze for pulling this all together and making something uncommon. There are some current themes that resonate like cyber-bullying, and the power of online anonymity. Surprisingly, they are truly thought-provoking, which yours truly certainly was not anticipating.
But, as well as Gabriadze showcases these themes, perhaps some aspects could have been outlined better. As solid and as important as the message is, I think it doesn’t resonate like it potentially could have. There’s a period in the middle of the film that feels more comical than maybe intended, which makes Unfriended during this point in the runtime feel more like a parody on teen behavior rather than the realistic tale, sans the supernatural part, that is present in most of the film’s length. And without spoiling the ending hopefully, all that will be said is that there is a real opportunity to bring everything full-circle and show the true consequences of one’s actions, but instead a common, less fulfilling ending is used. It’s not bad, but it could have been substantially stronger.
There are no parents or older performers to be found in this one. As one can expect, Unfriended‘s characters are filled with people who can still pass for teens. Their characters, like teens themselves, can be annoying, but for the cliches the actors and actresses are asked to serve up they do a respectable job with some better than others. De facto main character Blaire (the movie takes place entirely on her respective screen), is played by Shelley Hennig, whose performance gets stronger as this goes on. But the real standouts are Will Peltz as Adam, the explosive, hot-tempered male teen archetype, and Renee Olstead as Jess, the promiscuous blonde archetype. The latter really sells fear and unease beyond screaming and shouting, and yours truly wouldn’t mind seeing her in more projects that aren’t The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
What one does online can be anonymous, but it also can live forever. Unfriended may not “live forever” in the eyes of horror fans or the average moviegoer, but it isn’t hard to imagine this inspiring numerous imitations moving forward.
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