There’s something really satisfying about going into a movie that you expect to be only okay – or maybe even out-and-out bad – and instead getting an inventive and pretty great experience. And let’s be fair: there’s almost no reason that Unfriended should be any good. The film showed every indication of being what Roger Ebert called a “Dead Teenager Movie” – in other words, a generic slasher about teens paying for their sins. In this case, those sins seem to revolve around a girl who was cyberbullied until she committed suicide, and all of our young protagonists seem to be connected to the incident somehow.
And yet, Unfriended feels like nothing else really out there, and the reason, once again, goes back to Ebert. This time, though, it’s his First Rule of Movies: “A movie is not about what it is about; it is about how it goes about it.” And while Unfriended is a horror movie in which teenagers die, how it goes about it is far more interesting than it has any right to be.
Unfriended plays out in real-time, and essentially as one single shot – a shot of a laptop screen. The entire film is told via the screen of Blaire Lily, and as it unfolds, we watch her Skype calls with friends, her web searches, her side messages with her boyfriend, and more. More than that – and more interestingly than that – we see her inputs in real time, as she revises her typing, changes her mind about what she’s going to say, and debates how to handle the nightmare unfolding in front of her.
Let’s set aside the complicated technical aspects of the film (which apparently necessitated each actor basically doing the film in a single unbroken take), and instead, let’s talk about how the idea pays off. Director Levan Gabriadze does wonders with his limited screen space, letting tension build with something as simple as a window being moved to the background, or the arrival of a new notification, or the unexpected playing of a song. It’s a peculiarly literal version of the idea of the “ghost in the machine,” but a fantastic one, one that gives the film absolute control over our window into this “reality” and the ability to toy with what we see and experience.
More than that, it gives the film a fascinating way to let the story play out, as we get the divide between what our characters are saying, what their interactions imply, and most interestingly, some of the things that Blaire isn’t saying. On multiple occasions, the film watches as Blaire struggles with the right words, and in the various drafts she goes through, we start to put together more story than any dialogue ever could. (That’s most notable when Blaire tries to explain to her friends a bit more about why the dead girl was more sympathetic than they might have thought.) It’s a small touch, but it’s also a method of storytelling that no other approach to the film could have supported.
And finally – and most compellingly – it turns the subtext of the film into text. Unfriended is a film that revolves around cyberbullying, but it’s also a film about technology in modern life – the distancing effect online interactions can have, for instance, but also the ways in which we deal with other. It makes the film valuable not only as a snapshot of our current era, but gives it some thoughtful material to unpack, and a subtext that becomes important as we learn exactly what part some of these teens played in the death of that girl.
Sure, some parts of Unfriended are still only okay. The deaths feel a bit silly and contrived, and almost laughably contrived in a few cases. And it’s really a shame that the film doesn’t end about 30 seconds earlier than it does – it’s exactly the ending that I suspected the film would deliver, and it’s disappointing not only in its predictability, but in its cheesiness. But for all of that, there’s still some genuinely unnerving sequences in Unfriended, and I have to admire any film that gets this much tension and unease out of nothing more than a blank, default Skype icon. Unfriended is far from perfect, but it’s far more inventive and interesting than I ever expected it to be, and really, much better than I hoped, delivering a horror film that does something fairly rare for the genre: it does something wholly new and unique. And even if it was terrible – and it’s not – that alone makes it worth your time. The fact that it’s still creepy and engaging is just icing.