I usually reserve the longer reviews for films still playing in theaters, but sometimes a title I’ve caught up on later merits a few extra words.
Appropriately, the conversation took place on Facebook Messenger. I was discussing Unfriended with my friend Khaetlyn, who had recommended the film in the first place, offering the assurance that it was far more than the trashy, cheapo found footage horror film it appeared to be from all the floridly urgent promotion around it. Shortly after seeing it, I was about to let her know that she was correct, when she framed her curiosity about my reaction in a way that felt familiar from our days working together.
I work with college students, so I’m routinely dealing with individuals at least a generation younger than me. For a stretch, Khaetlyn and her cohort on the summer work crew I supervised amused themselves by taking a moment each and every day to announce the shared year of their individual births to me, causing pinging in my temple because it corresponded with a calendar I lived through when comfortably into my adulthood. Initially, this invocation of my ancient memory seemed like that same old ribbing, but then Khaetlyn explained precisely why it was pertinent for this conversation. As a result, I started thinking about my own limitations in evaluating film.
First, it’s worth laying out the particulars of Unfriended. In proper modern horror movie fashion, it centers on the murderous revenge of a cruelly persecuted teen. The youth in question is Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who committed suicide after a deeply unflattering video of her disastrous drunkenness at a party was posted anonymously and without her consent. On the anniversary of her death, a mysterious figure using Laura’s various social media accounts begins needling the group of friends who were collectively suspected of responsibility for the offending upload.
In some ways, the film is conventional as can be, with the pending victims all sketched out in the simplest manner and defined with such broadly divergent personality traits that it’s difficult to imagine the circumstances in which they tolerate one another much less operate as a friendly clique. More problematically, the inevitable gruesome deaths are exacted through methods that are meant to be novel but are instead dull-witted and set up in a painfully obvious fashion. The kid who holds up a nonsensically out-of-place blender early in the film is sure to become unhappily acquainted with its whirring blades before the final credits. In the horror genre, this sort of bleakly dispatched comeuppance is too often what passes for wit.
What sets Unfriended apart, though, is the sneakily ingenious realization of its central conceit. The whole film plays out on one laptop screen, as Blaire (Shelley Hennig) interacts with her increasingly worried then panicked friends, as well as the fearsome figure digitally harassing them, entirely through online resources, such as Facebook, Skype, and various chat functions. In an especially valuable touch, the filmmakers use actual digital products, rather than some phony stand-in like facelOOk, creating greater authenticity through familiarity. When they intend to stir minor but effective anxiety through delayed communication — the absence of response potentially meaning the more dire of outcomes given the situation — the fully recognizably pulse of little dots, or lack thereof, has a fiercer impact than the cliched horror movies rhythms of absence followed by a jolt.
Director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves stage the action expertly, using the fidgety interactions of a screen-fixated teen to help alleviate any tedium that may come from the limitations of operating on a single desktop. In particular, they shrewdly use their technique to delve into the thought process of the main character, as she taps out a response only to think better of it and backspace her first instinct into oblivion or is triggered by some fresh taunt to click on new browser tab so she can research a theory she’d previously dismissed. At its most intriguing, the movie is a map of one anguished mind.
I can assess and intellectualize all of these facets of the film, but I question whether or not I can truly feel them. As I grew up, the wilds of the World Wide Web weren’t available to me. Hell, it wasn’t even invented yet. The agreed upon date of Tim Berners-Lee’s technological conjuring of the internet-reliant communication platform is one year after I graduated high school. My friend Khaetlyn grew up with it, and the social media juggernauts it spawned, as a part of life as ubiquitous and necessary as landline telephones when I was a kid. For her, certain moments in Unfriended had an entirely different resonance, particularly those that exploited fears around a lack of control of one’s public persona. The painful knot of uncertainty upon discovering someone else has posted a picture of you is something I’ve never experienced, not really. For people twenty years (or more — sigh) younger than me, the gap between the notification of the picture and confirming its contents is pure threat. Hell, the fact I posted a fragmentary screenshot of one of our conversations will likely give my friend momentary heart palpitations.
My lack of directly relatable experience isn’t automatically a damning flaw. I don’t feel the need to be a Jedi or a Wookiee to weigh in on Star Wars. Even so, it feels different in this instance. Horror movies, after all, play to base emotions, deeply embedded fears. Many of the dangers featured in such fare play upon my own survival instincts, whether or not I can directly related to the heightened dilemma. Even though I don’t have kids, for example, I’ve been culturally indoctrinated to react a certain way if I see one in danger. With Unfriended, I entirely missed one piece of it that was a significant driver of its clicking disquiet. That doesn’t make me feel unqualified to assess the film, but it does get me thinking about the how the borders of my experience shape my reaction to it. As I continue to put fingers to keyboard to tap out my opinions, it’s a worthwhile reminder.