Sunday, April 19, 2015

Unfriended (2014)

Bullying has always existed in some form or fashion. It sucks, but it has. And it seems like bullying has only gotten worse thanks to the rise of social media and the Internet. More and more you hear stories of kids taking their bullying too far and going online with it to prolong their tormenting, with those targeted by this harassment many times feeling that suicide is their only recourse.

Much like the rash of school shootings from the end of the 1990s, the recent trends in bullying have fodder for overwrought made-for-TV movies and episodes of police procedurals like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. And it's also spawned the new horror flick Unfriended. Originally having premiered under the title Cybernatural at last summer's Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal before it got a new name and was picked up for distribution by Universal Pictures, Unfriended introduces the idea of cyber-bullying into the tired, worn-out world of found footage movies in a way that brings us something unique. I'm not going to argue that the movie is great or even really that good, but hey, one can't fault somebody for making an effort.

It's been a year since teenager Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) committed suicide after a humiliating video of her ended up on YouTube and led to her facing a ton of online bullying. On the anniversary of her death, it's readily apparent that her friends have put it all behind them, six of them getting together online via a Skype video chat hosted by Laura's former best friend Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig). However, a mysterious, anonymous seventh party has entered their conversation and cannot be ejected from the group. That's when the threatening messages begin, both in the Skype chat and from Laura's Facebook page. As the messages from this unknown person grow more and more intense to the point of violence, their darkest secrets ― and their roles in the events leading to Laura's death ― begin coming to light.

I've been seeing Unfriended getting some really glowing reviews lately. Far be it for me to judge someone for enjoying a movie (though I'll insult the hell out of the Twi-hards), but I'm not seeing what's so great about this one. I'm not saying it's a bad flick, because there are some really solid moments. But I walked out of the theater feeling underwhelmed. I mean, was this it? Was this the best it had to offer? I really don't like being able to sum up my opinion of a movie with the word "meh."

To the movie's credit, I did think the concept was pretty novel. The whole thing being done in a real-time view of the main character's computer screen is a really neat idea. It's like someone took Joe Swanberg's "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" segment from V/H/S to a crazy extreme. And director Levan Gabriadze constructs it well, for the most part. The problem is that I just didn't think the movie was that scary. There are a handful of scenes that I thought were genuinely suspenseful and creepy, I'm not going to lie. But there's just something here that I really felt that Unfriended was lacking.

Maybe it's because the movie isn't really aimed towards people like me. I'm 32 years old and I've seen dozens, if not hundreds of horror movies. Unfriended is the kind of movie made for the teenage crowd that isn't seeing every scary movie that comes along. If you bleep the profanities, you could probably air the movie on MTV between reruns of Catfish: The TV Series and Teen Mom. I also found it was hard to care about the characters, since they all seemed kinda flat (or just plain unlikable in one or two cases). I don't know if I should blame writer Nelson Greaves for it being this way in the script, or if it's because I can't really connect with modern teenagers. But it's hard for me to get into a horror movie like this when I don't give a crap about any of the people in it.

Even the movie's cast is more "just kinda there" than anything else. I did think Shelley Hennig did a great job and that Moses Jacob Storm had his moments, but the actors are largely paint-by-numbers at best. They did what they needed to do, but never do much better than that. The cast just does the bare minimum enough to get by without sucking outright. A great cast could have made this movie worthwhile in spite of its flaws, but nope, we'll have to do with what we have.

And that's all there is to say about Unfriended. All you've got is what it gives you, and that'll just have to suffice. I really wanted to like the movie. The concept shows a lot of promise and when it's good, I thought it could have been great. But the vast majority of the movie is, frankly, dull. I might give it a second chance when the DVD comes out in a few months. I might like it more at home on TV than on a big movie screen. (I'd actually get a kick out of watching it on a laptop, truthfully.) But as it stands, all I can say about Unfriended is, "meh, it's okay, I guess." It's not bad, it's not good, it just... is.

Final Rating: **