Rated R for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug and alcohol use — all involving teens.
Running time: 82 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
If you’re reading this review on your laptop — which you probably are — then you also probably have a bunch of other windows open at the same time, allowing you to multitask. It’s OK — I don’t take it personally. You’re probably also shopping for clothes and chatting with friends and listening to music and checking your Facebook feed. You’re probably also making dinner for your kid or halfheartedly watching something on TV.
You’re busy. I get it.
It’s How We Live Now, if you’ll allow me to get all ponderous on you. But “Unfriended” takes the notion that we’re incapable of doing one thing at a time and uses it for darkly funny and ultimately startling effect. A horror flick that takes place entirely within a teenage girl’s laptop in real time, “Unfriended” is a gimmick, pure and simple. It’s a found-footage movie meets a cabin-in-the-woods movie meets a claustrophobic thriller. But in the hands of director Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves, it’s a gimmick that works surprisingly well.
As it begins with the image of a laptop screen where someone is watching a YouTube video — then continues to stay on the screen for the next several minutes — you may find yourself wondering (as I did): Is this how the whole movie is going to be? How can they possibly make this last? But damned if they don’t pull it off. (It really couldn’t have gone on much longer than its brief running time, though.) “Birdman” — the best movie of last year, says me — might seem like an odd comparison, but “Unfriended” evokes the same sense of wonder as its central stunt keeps going and going.
There’s a lot that I don’t want to give away because this is a movie filled with twists and revelations as its main characters’ connections become clearer. But I’ll say this much: A beautiful high school student named Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) was the subject of a humiliating video that went viral. Soon afterward, she killed herself — the video of which also went viral. One year later, a half dozen of her classmates find themselves on the same Skype chat. But joining them is an unnamed, unseen visitor they can’t click away from or delete — and it’s using Laura’s account.
Seems Laura is pissed — and she wants revenge. And somewhere in purgatory, she picked up some formidable hacking skills. She can take over your Facebook page. She can play morbidly amusing songs from your Pandora collection. She can commandeer the microphone on your laptop. And — this is crucial — she can keep you from calling 911 on your cell phone when things start getting really gnarly.
Yes, this is a ridiculous premise. The makers of this movie have already thought of everything you’re going to think of — considered every answer, every option. And so if you can give yourself over to the idea of “Unfriended,” you’ll find it’s surprisingly engrossing and really quite clever.
Great care has been taken with both the big ideas and the small details. Part of what makes this movie work is the authenticity of the experience. You truly feel as if you’re watching our heroine — if you can call her that, since all of these characters turn out to be flawed in one way or another — as she moves through her tabs, makes decisions and responds to each new threat.
Among the other pages Blaire (Shelley Hennig) has open on this night are Jezebel and Forever 21. The Facebook ads and suggested videos on the right side of the YouTube page are for the same crap you always see: cute kittens, crazy engagement stories and the like. You watch Blaire stop and self-edit her instant messages and begin to understand her thought processes. And you wait anxiously when some new photo or video attachment pops up for fear of the damage it might cause. It’s like screaming at the screen during a traditional horror movie: “Don’t open that door!”
Also on the Skype call are Blaire’s horny boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm); his best friend, the wealthy Adam (Will Peltz); party girl Jess (Renee Olstead); bitchy queen bee Val (Courtney Halverson) and stoner clown Ken (Jacob Wysocki). If you’ve seen the trailer for this movie — or if you’ve seen any horror movie, period — then you know it’s not a spoiler to say that they get picked off, one by one, in gory and inspired ways.
Again, you have to just go with it. “Unfriended” is a lot of fun. But hopefully it’s not the start of a whole franchise. I’d hate to watch this movie all over again through someone’s iPhone.