“Unfriended” takes place in real time over 82 minutes, and all of that time is filled using one continuous shot. The camera never moves. There is not a single edit. I’ve read this was all done with a budget of only $1 million, and the conceit works surprisingly well. While there is nothing scary or even tense about “Unfriended,” what does work is the mystery, which is quite compelling.
Events open where they will remain throughout, with a first person shot of a laptop screen owned and operated by a teenager named Blaire (Shelley Hennig). Using Apple’s readily identifiable iOS system, the story is told entirely through Blaire accessing Skype chat, Spotify, iMessage, YouTube, and email. She searches for information via Google using Google Chrome. The sites and sounds are familiar, and oddly comforting.
The real genius at work here is the way in which director Levan Gabriadze makes it all look so organic. Everything, from the way Blaire moves her cursor to the way she types to the buffering video to the chat video pixelating when people move too fast, is spot on. Not a single moment feels artificial, which allows you to settle in and enjoy the story.
Exactly one year ago, Laura Burns was cyber-bullied into committing suicide. Tonight, six of her former classmates have gathered online using Skype chat, not to commemorate her death, but to behave in the way white, over-privileged, narcissistic, teenagers with too much time on their hands and too little supervision behave every night.
At first everyone believes the generic Skype avatar connected to their chat is a lurker or glitch. Nothing can get rid of it, though, and when it finally interjects itself into the conversation, things get progressively awful. Is this uninvited person Laura Burns looking for revenge from the grave? If so, what really happened, and what did these six spoiled, self-involved teenagers have to do with it?
Sometimes “Unfriended” is too real. Everyone yelling and talking over one another gets old fast. These shrill moments are supposed to increase the tension and conflict. It only made me wish I had access to a mute button. The characters are also thin, even for a horror film. They are also unlikable. All of them. There is no virginal protagonist to root for here, and before the first hour ended, I wanted to kill them all. Not to avenge the cyber-bullied, but for America.
“Unfriended” does have something to say about cyber-bullying, and thankfully does so without ever using a heavy hand. The technical wonders teenagers enjoy today, the ability to brand themselves permanently and in front of the entire world through social media, is almost certainly more of a curse than a blessing. No one wants who they were as a teenager to live on forever.
To someone like myself, who grew up in the 70s and early 80s, just the thought of these tools in the hands of the still unformed and oftentimes sadistic hands of the normal American teenager, goes so far beyond playground bullying it is inconceivable. There is no privacy, no second chances and no do-overs in a cyberspace reality that gives everyone a camera along with the power to immediately broadcast everything to the world.
You might not jump or cover your eyes during “Unfriended.” The horror that creeps into your guts has nothing to do with normal tropes found in a teen slasher film. The horror comes from the destructive power of social media to capture you at your worst moment, and ensure that moment lives on forever in front of the entire world.
John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC