PLOT: On the one year anniversary of Laura Barnes' suicide, six of her high-school friends are suddenly terrorized online by a mysterious entity using her Skype, Facebook and Youtube accounts.
REVIEW: It's easy to see why MTV and Universal opted, after the positive feedback garnered by its trailer, to turn its originally planned TV movie UNFRIENDED (aka CYBERNATURAL) into a theatrical experience. In only his second feature, Russian born filmmaker Leo Gabriadze mashes up a thrilling, highly entertaining and novel social-media mystery that will likely prove a surefire crowd-pleaser. Daringly set entirely on sectionalized computer desktop, largely in real time, the flick about six online chatroom pals who come under vicious attack from an enigmatic entity claiming to be their suicidally deceased friend Laura Barnes - is a true technical wonder that never fails to amuse. At a bold and brisk 82 minutes, I'm somewhat surprised to say it's very hard not to hit the "Like Button" on UNFRIENDED!
We're instantly gripped by a Youtube video of a teenaged Laura Barnes shooting herself to death in a parking lot, followed by the bullying video of what apparently caused her to do so. Then we cut to flirty Skype exchange between Blaire (Shelley Hennig) and her boyfriend Mitchie (Moses Jacob Storm). The two tease, poke, prod...and soon a bout of blue-balls turns into what we gather is a daily online hangout with four additional friends. We meet Adam (Will Peltz), a yuppie Bieber lookalike; Kenny (Jacob Wysocki), the portly pothead funnyman; Jess (Renee Olstead), your typical blond ice-queen; and Val (Courtney Halverson), a shrill and overbearing drama-queen...all joined for a weekend chatroom chill-out. But wait. There's another mysterious, blank-profiled user in video-chat with them. What the hell. It won't go away. Soon Blair and Mitchie realize that they're be communicated with via the account of Laura Barnes (Heather Sossamon), the friend of theirs who committed a bully-induced suicide exactly one year earlier. Hmm. Surely this is tasteless prank, right?
Not so fast. Shit grows weirder and more cryptic by the passing minute, which unfolds online in real time. Someone called Billie is now using all of Laura's social media accounts to harass and terrorize our, it turns out, not so friendly sextet. It comes to light that Blaire, Mitchie and the rest were complicit in a damning prank video that humiliated Laura so intensely she felt the need to end her life over it. Now, in a spree of vengeance, the digital poltergeist starts pitting the friends against one another, and begins physically harming them in the real world. Better yet, forcing them to harm themselves. There's a couple of grisly flashes of gore involving a blender and a curling iron, but it's up to you discover exactly how it goes down.
If this all sounds a bit gimmicky, sure it is, but to rather effective and ever amusing ends. Director Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves have a great handle on how we all communicate online these days, especially the younger crowd, and uses that everyday mode of online correspondence to craft a good-humored and intense white-knuckle thriller. Part of the reason it works so well and stays consistently entertaining is having the performers act out the entire film in one long take, replete with improvised dialogue and natural go-with-the-flow reactions. At minimum, takes were shot at a clip of no less than 10 minutes at a time. This creates unbroken, hypnotic effect that you really cannot avert your eyes from. It also goes a long way toward believing the performances, which end up feeling totally organic and spur of the moment. And because of these things, the technical gimmick or novelty is much easier to accept, if not fully buy into.
As for the macro, the film takes a clear anti-bullying stance, which is a cause that we've seen proliferate in recent years. Not that this is a message movie or preachy by any means, it's just that while watching the flick, it occurred to me how tremendously cruel it would be to go through high-school in this current social media age. Hell, high-school was bad enough alone with old fashioned rumors, hearsay and backstabbing. But nowadays? With Twitter, Facebook, cell-phone cams and Youtube? F*ck all that Jack! Talk about a thought almost as terrifying as the action in the flick. In that regard, sympathy is earned here in a way you wouldn't normally get with literal two-dimensional characters displayed over a computer monitor. Clever indeed.
In terms of the downers, they're pretty much on par with your typical teenage slasher fare. After calling the cops and trying to log out of Facebook a few times, you want to stop and ask these poor kids why not just shut the f*cking computer off and go outside for some fresh air. Why continue to be harassed by an internet phantom? Why not go Wyatt in WEIRD SCIENCE and Louisville Slugger your goddamn laptop? Also, there are a few audio jump-scares that grow a bit tiresome the more they occur. I'm talking the Skype logon beeping that's way too voluble in the sound-mix here, seeming only to serve the same function as the musical stings we get when a character rounds a corner. It's a bit too much. Also, there's a stretch in the middle of the movie that, because of the premise, gets a little claustrophobic in ways I don't think are intended. Still, these are minor grouses for a movie that by and large works well.
Anyway you treat it, UNFRIENDED succeeds in what it wants to achieve. For a bold conceit like setting a film entirely online with long stretches of uncut action, the flick mounts a substantial amount of tension and manages to stay consistently enthralling throughout. I realize that the technical aspect of the flick may polarize some people into love it or hate it camps, but I personally see the premise of the movie as less of a gimmick and more of a novel approach to telling a story in a way with that uses new media and technology as its vehicle. And it not only boasts social media, but promotes a social message, yet never does so at the cost of being preserving the mystery and remaining highly entertaining.