If ghosts usually haunt personal places, then it makes sense that the teens of 2015 would be haunted online. After all, that’s where they live.
Unfriended takes this notion to its literal extreme, as the entire movie unfolds on the laptop screen of Blaire (Shelley Hennig) while she video chats with a group of friends. Actually, before the call begins, we first see Blaire watching video footage from a year earlier, when her friend Laura (Heather Sossaman) killed herself after suffering a cruel instance of cyberbullying. When the chat begins, Blaire shifts into cheery mode (one of the movie’s clever conceits is the way it contrasts Blaire’s hesitant keystrokes, signifying her inner distress, with the chipper face she puts on for the camera). Clearly she’s still haunted by her friend’s death.
Might she also be haunted by her friend? Soon an anonymous caller joins the chat and starts goading the others into dredging up their shared past. Meanwhile, Blaire begins receiving Facebook messages from Laura’s defunct account. Is this a particularly tech-savvy troll, one of the friends messing with the others in the group or something more sinister?
Unfriended, written by Nelson Greaves and directed by Levan Gabriadze, takes seemingly benign, everyday technology and turns it into a vehicle for menace. When Blaire stares at her Facebook page and sees this text—“Laura is typing…”—it’s no longer only information, but a terrifying threat. That blank, faceless avatar for the anonymous caller on the video chat becomes scarier than the mask from Scream. And whenever the video buffers, it makes the friends’ figures creepily pixelated. As they fade in and out, it’s as if they’re all ghosts.
I’ve never been so wrung out waiting for the click of a mouse.
There is another formal element to Unfriended that’s ingeniously handled: the “editing.” Given that all of the action takes place on Blaire’s desktop, editors Parker Laramie and Andrew Wesman had to rethink the very concept of cutting from moment to moment, scene to scene. And so they manage to wring suspense and emotional resonance in new ways: choosing which onscreen window to maximize, for instance, or picking the precise moment to have a certain notification alert pop up. Even the various ways Blaire operates her apps—quickly, slowly, with hesitation—carry different emotional connotations. I’ve never been so wrung out waiting for the click of a mouse.
Thematically, Unfriended certainly captures—in awful detail—the casual cruelty of teens, even (perhaps especially) among friends. If the aesthetic use of technology marks this as a movie of the moment—and I think the film has much to say about how we’ve come to live in a world of constant distractions, with calls and alerts and music and notifications and video and texts coming at us all at once—Unfriended is timeless in its depiction of teen bullying. It especially understands the way the ironic language of adolescence—“jk!”—allows insults to at once mean nothing and everything. Unfriended is a screen shot of humanity acting so ugly that you could almost describe it as demonic.