The First Movie To Get Cyberbullying Right

Universal Pictures

The new movie Unfriended unfolds in a landscape that's familiar, but markedly weird to see on a big screen — a computer desktop, cluttered with files, open tabs, apps, and, eventually, communications from a vengeful, social media–savvy ghost. It's a premise that seems ridiculous until you start to realize it might actually be brilliant, or at least charmingly clever.

Unfriended, which was directed by Levan Gabriadze, isn't the type of horror movie that will keep you up at night, but it is the kind that wants to make people shriek and giggle, more Paranormal Activity (with which it shares a producer, Jason Blum) than It Follows. And Unfriended wittily fulfills these modest goals by using scenes that are part and parcel of contemporary life, but rarely the stuff of cinema — and by making those familiar sights spooky.

Universal Pictures

We devote a lot of our time to gazing at devices, a reality that's rarely reflected in movies, mostly because it's not interesting to watch someone else hunch over a computer or fiddle with their phone. When characters in movies use technology, it usually involves feeding queries into nonexistent search engines and scanning through unfamiliar interfaces that use an awful lot of animation. Characters usually turn to devices when the plot demands it, and not, the way many regular people do, just to hang out, or because they're bored, or because they have a spare moment, or because they just want to see who's saying what on whichever network.

But Unfriended — which joins two smaller cyberbullying-themed movies out in theaters, the overly earnest A Girl Like Her and the witch trials–inspired The Sisterhood of Night — showcases totally believable internet futzing around right from the start. Its main character Blaire (Teen Wolf's Shelley Hennig), home alone for the night, toggles between Facebook, Gmail, iTunes, and Instagram. She's ensconced in the (quickly questionable) safety of her family's suburban house — her parents, like her friends', aren't around, adding to that feeling of an online-enabled world that adults have no access to or real inkling of.

Blaire video chats with a group of her friends, but has a side conversation going with one of them, her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), in Messages. And she watches two clips online that turn out to be central to what's been haunting her and her friends. One, hidden behind content warnings on LiveLeak, is a wobbly shot of a girl holding a gun to her head and then shooting herself. And the other, on YouTube, is a video of the same girl, drunk at a party and poised to humiliate herself. It's called “LAURA BARNS KILL URSELF” — a suggestion that Laura (Heather Sossaman) apparently took to heart.

For all of its silliness — its malevolent force lurks behind the default Skype avatar and does things like fill out all the fields in a form with “I GOT HER I GOT HER I GOT HER” — Unfriended is one of the first movies to take on cyberbullying in the form of anything other than a well-intentioned PSA or as part of an overall ripped-from-the-headlines cautionary tale about internet use (like 2012's Disconnect or last year's Men, Women & Children). Which makes it, unexpectedly, also the best at approaching a serious topic that tends to get treated as an abstract epidemic, in the style of an after-school special — see ABC Family's clueless 2011 TV movie on the subject, an exercise in unintentional camp. Unfriended may be current in its tech (and will date itself very quickly), but it's not a sermon. It's part of the good ol' slasher tradition of a group of teens being targeted by something wicked that's intent on picking them off one by one.

The high school clique in Unfriended seems nice at first, and then turns out to be not that nice, in all sorts of unremarkable ways — the teenagers are plagued by infidelity, resentment, competition, minor betrayal, truths that come out when the ghost (operating under Laura's old username, billie227) starts posting revealing photos and videos and pitting the characters against one another. These secrets are the sort that might seem earth-shattering in the confines of teenagerdom and not that big a deal a few years out of it, when the fact that your friend started a rumor that you had an eating disorder might not seem like an unforgivable act of aggression.

Universal Pictures

Unfriended doesn't soften the language or impact of anonymous online cruelty — it presents it as a spigot of bile that can be directed at anyone in an age where any mistake or misdeed can be captured and placed online, its reach magnified for a scornful internet audience that's never held accountable for its words…except by the supernatural. The movie's most painful scene, more than the kills that get broken up, hilariously, by buffering, is the one in which we finally see the full video that led to Laura's suicide.

Everything shown until that point has been vague, shadowed by the foreboding suggestion of a sexual assault, but the reveal is actually of a less loaded (though understandable) humiliation. It's the stuff of a future embarrassing bar anecdote, but in the context of an unforgiving high school social structure, it feels much worse. The sense of anticlimax emphasizes the added targeting and vulnerability of young women to online abuse. Unfriended makes cyberbullying scary, in several senses, but it also makes it mundane, the kind of thing that could happen to anyone, and that doesn't only fall into stereotypical divides of alpha types and traditional targets. Laura's revenge may not be entirely earned, but the movie has you rooting for her, because why should she be any more measured than her former friends? Ghosts can be mean girls too.

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