UNFRIENDED (2015, Leo Gabriadze)
With horror movies having drained the found-footage conceit of every possible nuance, Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves have not only invented something new, but done so with considerable intelligence and creativity. The concept is both limiting and exhilarating — the camera never leaves the rigid frame of a laptop screen, but that screen contains various windows, each of which present their own opportunities for suspense. A file download, a secretive IM chat, thoughts typed and deleted before they’re sent, and even sound effects — the familiar bwip of a Macbook indicating something has just come in. UNFRIENDED is not a film about technology: not about its fears, its evils, or its benefits. It’s a film that assumes this technology has been woven into our lives for better or worse, and then generates its fear from story and character.
What’s so exciting about this work is how it manages to explore familiar themes with only visual cues — ironically, for as limited as the gimmick is, and as little as the camera can move, this is one of the most visually astute horror films released in years. So much is told with Blaire’s cursor and keystrokes: what she wants to say but can’t, how desperate she is (gauged by how quickly she types or refuses to fix typos), and most importantly — how much she trusts her friends and boyfriend. The issue of trust runs throughout this entire film; there’s the trust Laura put into her friends (that was betrayed by the viral video which ruined her), the trust Adam/Jess/Ken/etc. have in each other (witness how easy it is for them to place blame for the ghost’s actions on each other), and ultimately the amount of trust Blaire has in Mitch, which is indicated by her hovering cursor over words like “I promise” and the secrets about Val she almost shares but doesn’t (props to the movie for not being heavy-handed about child molestation; it presents the problem but doesn’t use it as a plot device nor an explanation). Although we only see her face in her own Skype screen, the moral struggles Blaire goes through are palpable merely through a roving diagonal black arrow.
Even more thought-provoking is the damning social message this story conveys. Laura’s ghost is a metaphor for how teenagers reveal their insecurities and turn on each other out of peer pressure, spite, and angst. It’s a film about cyberbullying, yes, but it’s bullying in general — why it happens, what it means, and how it can spread. These kids are not exceptionally terrible, but they’re not as “good” as they think. As explored recently by the likes of author Jon Ronson, public shaming is an issue now because rather than being a weapon of the mob, the mob is us. We’ve used social media to crowd-source bullying, and it creates a snowball effect of emotional violence that, in this film, becomes very real violence. Our culture’s best horror films are those that are both terrifying to experience and reveal something about the society we live in today. UNFRIENDED is both a trenchant critique and a visually vibrant piece of cinema.