My grandfather has a few days left to live. My father told me that on Saturday. I felt my body tightening as we spoke. There are acting techniques to communicate closing yourself off to someone, but the truth is that they’re not techniques – they’re plain old body language. Sometimes you can’t control them. My right arm crossed my chest. My left hand went to my chin. I leaned on a door frame, hiding half my body.
What did I feel? I didn’t know yet. The feelings were only peeking through. My emotions are an open book to my friends, but I’m reserved around my family. No reason, it’s just the way I am. I reassured my dad, but not very well.
I’m a critic. I had a movie to see that night, so I went. I missed the showing by 15 minutes. I got angry. I finally felt it. I just needed a trigger. I called my best friend in a manic state and talked to him about everything but what was really on my mind. I didn’t bring it up. What was I going to say? I talked to him until the next showing.
And then I saw a movie about confession.
I tell you this because sometimes moments happen as they need to, not as you intend. I want you to understand the lens through which I saw Unfriended.
First off, what is it? The whole movie is one big Skype conversation. Six friends in high school talk online via camera. We’re watching a single computer screen for the entire movie. We can see the other friends via cameras on their phones or laptops, and we’ll cut away for minutes at a time to a conversation via text or frantic Google searches.
These six friends all share something in common, a bullied friend named Laura who committed suicide exactly one year ago on the night. Turns out there’s a ghost in the machine. Literally. They’re terrorized, blackmailed, and murdered one-by-one as the night goes on. If they leave the computer, they die.
There’s a fine line between gimmicky and bravely experimental. Sometimes, the only difference is quality. Unfriended works. It works incredibly well. The script is tight and effective, the improvisation is raw, and the editing is so good you won’t notice a single cut.
If this were on stage, it would be a locked room play, where six characters unravel each others’ secrets and elicit confessions until the answer to a mystery is revealed. The mystery, in this case, is who caused Laura’s suicide.
Some ideas in the script are simplistic, but that’s perfectly fine when you execute them this well. We’ll see some murders, too. They aren’t the film’s standout moments, but the tension’s ratcheted so high, you’ll accept them pretty willingly.
The chief issue with Unfriended is the bar to entry. If you rarely use a social network, video conferencing, YouTube, or an online music library, you might fail to notice many subtle touches that build the dread. If you’re familiar with them, it’s remarkable how well Unfriended takes some of the most commonplace moments in our online existence and turns them on their heads. I never imagined I’d get a chill up my spine from a missing exit program button. If you aren’t at least familiar with this kind of online life, you may bounce off significant portions of the movie.
Unfriended addresses real concerns of online and youth bullying, and how we fail to take responsibility for our own actions in a world that marries the real-life and online halves of how we represent ourselves.
For all its terror, it becomes surprisingly bittersweet in its final moments. It truly builds to something more meaningful than the average slasher film or POV horror movie. It talks to us about the regrets we have, the time we didn’t spend better, the relationships we failed at or never put enough effort toward realizing. If you can hang with its style, Unfriended is a movie that will scare and thrill you, that may reinforce some valuable lessons, and that may ask you to reflect on aspects of your own life.
For me, I’m reserved with my family. No reason, it’s just the way I am. I was reserved with my grandfather, too, and I haven’t always done the best job of showing him I love him. That’s where Unfriended got me. It’s intense and it’s riveting, but it also makes you face your own regrets and confess them quietly to yourself in the darkness of the theater.
I am astounded by how well Unfriended works, both as an intense horror movie and as an old-fashioned personal drama told via modern technology. It’s essentially the best and bravest found footage movie since The Blair Witch Project 16 years ago.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does Unfriended have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Shelley Hennig, Renee Olstead, Val Rommel, and Heather Sossaman all play key roles.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. Horror routinely outpaces other genres when it comes to featuring women as leads. Unfriended is no exception.
The one thing I’ll add is that Unfriended picks apart many of the social mores young women and men are expected to play into. Rumors abound about eating disorders, promiscuity, drug use, and virginity is treated as an expectation and a brokering chip. Unfriended exerts those pressures and criticisms as a facet of social horror. Bullying and peer pressures create the horror we’re seeing, and the metaphor of dying if you leave the computer can be very real in high schoolers’ minds. Falling behind in gossip or dissuading rumors (or perpetuating them) becomes a social death, and the pressure to be at the forefront of it all means that otherwise good people can be the ones to start those rumors.
This isn’t anything new in this generation – high school’s always been like this, and suicides from bullying are not a modern invention. 24-hour news that ensures the entire nation is aware of it – that’s the modern invention. These sorts of social pressures have existed as long as we have. They’ve always been dangerous. Millennials aren’t the generation with the problem; we’re the generation finally acknowledging the problem.
The only difference is the speed at which it happens and the mediums through which we bully – via cameraphone and online comment instead of whispered rumors and hallway taunts. It’s here that Unfriended is both ahead of everything else in the genre and deceptively psychological. I’ll repeat it again – this is an experiment in social criticism more than it is a gimmicky slasher. How close it hits to home is what makes it so effective.
How has online bullying effected you? What do you think is a good way to stop it?