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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Unfriended  (2015)
3 Stars
Directed by Levan Gabriadze.
Cast: Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman.
2015 – 80 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, April 16, 2015.
"Unfriended" is a film about the here and now, and not in an obnoxious, too-cute, pop-culture-filled, flash-in-the-pan kind of way. Instead, in its snapshot of the pressures of social media and the cruelties and lies that have the ability to destroy lives, it is a stirringly accurate time capsule of teenagehood in the second decade of the twenty-first century. When seemingly protected by the anonymity of a computer screen, kids can be mean and callous, not considering the sheer gravity of their actions. It is this exceedingly timely notion that lies within the bitter, mournful soul of director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves' riveting slice of cautionary horror.

What the movie lacks in subtlety it makes up for it with its auspicious filmmaking feat, every frame captured via Blaire Lily's (Shelley Hennig) online POV. On the one-year anniversary of friend Laura Barns' (Heather Sossaman) tragic suicide, Blaire is flirting with boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) and group-Skyping with pals Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and Val (Courtney Halverson) when she receives a Facebook Messenger text from Laura's locked account. She thinks it is an elaborate prank, but as this mysterious Internet phantom proceeds to infect all of their computers, they are thrust into a nightmarish life-or-death game designed to turn these supposedly tight-knit besties against each other. Before the evening is over, unforgivable secrets will be revealed and survivors will be in short supply.

"Unfriended" is savvy and socially conscious without turning into a maudlin message movie. Instead, director Levan Gabriadze makes his point through the economical telling of a story that questions the ramifications (or lack thereof) of cyberbullying. Pushed into taking her own life following the release of an embarrassing video and a ceaseless wave of online taunts, Laura Barns has now, many months later, become a statistic. The pain and shame that led Laura to shoot herself, however, lives on, materializing in a Skyping session that will end in the deaths of all Blaire's friends if she disconnects the call. It would be a miscalculation to lump "Unfriended" in with the unsavory, irresponsible likes of 2010's "The Virginity Hit," 2012's "Project X," and 2015's "Project Almanac;" this film is playing on a higher level, ringing true with the authenticity of its characters and their everyday reliance on technology to communicate.

The layers of complexity throughout, both on the screen and behind the scenes, are wholly absorbing, drawing the viewer into Blaire's online world while simultaneously impressing with how the whole balancing act of its concept has been achieved. As Blaire, Shelley Hennig (2014's "Ouija") is an ingratiating guide, sympathetic even as there proves to be much more to her and her friends than meets the eye. She and the other actors, who reportedly filmed in bravura 80-minute takes, must be technically and emotionally present at all times, and there isn't so much as a false note in any of their performances. The mounting tension ratcheted by the narrative is wholly absorbing and thoroughly unsettling, more so, it should be said, than the conventional horror payoffs that comes every fifteen minutes or so. If these violent punctuations are never quite as affecting as one expects them to be, it is a testament to the strength of the rest of the material that it scarcely matters; the film isn't really about these money shots anyway, but about the purveying mood of despair and helplessness that takes over these characters' lives, the lot of them no longer safe from the glare of their laptop screens.

"Unfriended" will lead some viewers to wonder where these teens' families are (as the dire late-night circumstances go down, they all appear to be home alone). The picture's final shots are also too obvious and on-the-nose for what has gone before it, Gabriadze missing out on a far more subtle yet haunting statement had he forced his final character to have to live with the unbearable guilt of what he or she has caused. Despite its imperfections, this is a smart entry in the horror genre, a film that isn't just about spooking its audience, but actually has something meaningful and urgent to say about the modern world as it stands in 2015. "Unfriended" never talks down to viewers, but levels with them while, hopefully, starting a much-needed conversation.
© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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