Review: ‘Unfriended’ uses new social media language for familiar ghost story

“Unfriended” is a very silly film.

“Unfriended” is also a very clever film. For a very silly film. And that combination of clever and silly will most likely make “Unfriended” a small sensation of sorts among the audience it is clearly chasing. It made me laugh when a group of teens paused mid-conversation to explain to one another what a “troll” is, because every person in that conversation would 100% already know that word. It's clearly a nod to the idea that my parents might see “Unfriended,” and they wouldn't know, so someone has to explain it. The makers of “Unfriended” shouldn't worry, though, because there's little or no chance my parents would ever see this movie.

While this is being released by a studio, it's actually a pick-up, an independent film that started life on the festival circuit with the title “Cybernatural.” Director Levan Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves were able to catch the attention of Russian madman Timur Bekmambetov, who helped them develop the picture. Told entirely on the screen of a teenage girl's laptop over the course of a long weird evening, “Unfriended” is a gimmick horror film that makes fairly good use of what could be a limitation. It's certainly not the first time I've seen a filmmaker try this idea, but there's an energy to the way this one's put together that is pretty charming in its own right.

The film wisely uses the current buzz topic of online bullying as a way to build what is essentially a haunted house movie set inside a Skype call. Once you figure out that's what you're watching, you can either enjoy the way the filmmakers try to keep the thing in motion, or you can get hung up on the overall shallow approach that they take. I do have a problem with the way the actual suicide footage (glimpsed here as news footage the main character is watching on YouTube) features in the TV ads. I know my own kids saw that spot at least twice watching innocuous family programming on Hulu, and it's the one grim and ugly and real moment in an otherwise absurd teen horror film.

And when it comes to tone, absurdity appears to be the goal here. Yes, they start from something that is actually real like bullying, but very quickly, things move into the realm of ghosts and the sorts of over-the-top deaths that only happen in horror movies. It's obvious that they're aiming for something more fun than genuinely haunting, and it helps that there is a good deal of humor used to punctuate the horror. It doesn't all land, but there's a fair amount of wit in something as simple as watching what someone types, deletes, then retypes. In that way, “Unfriended” is thoroughly modern, a horror film that could not exist at any other point in time. There is something going on under the surface here, something that gets at the insidious ways that social media seems to be changing the basic rules of society. “Unfriended” isn't really digging deep, though, and ultimately, this is the feature-length equivalent of one of those “Sit close to the screen and watch this calm and quiet OH SHIT SOMETHING JUST SCREAMED IN MY FACE!” videos people love to e-mail to each other.

Shelley Hennig is the lead, Blaire, and it's easy to miss just how hard her role is. She's got to be able to remain likable when the movie spends the full running time about five inches from her face. She's an appealing lead even once things descend into a whole lot of reacting and very little acting. However, if you told me that this film was made in 1987 and that young Ione Skye was the lead, or that the star was the sister of Heather Langenkamp, I would believe you. It's almost spooky in some shots. The rest of the cast is largely solid, with Courtney Halverson, Moses Jacob Storm, Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, and Jacob Wysocki all delivering perfectly fine work as they start to suspect that someone is playing a game with them during one long weird night online.

I also have to give special credit to whoever cleared everything, because normally films like this would invent all their own fake versions of everything, so you'd spend a whole film watching conversations via “Skeep” and “Facepage”. Part of why this works when it works is because this is the way it really looks and sounds when you're online. This is the way it might look if a vengeful spirit somehow made its way into the code itself. I do think there is a willful silliness to this version of the film that keeps it from really counting, and that's a choice, not a mistake. This will play best, though, to people who already live their lives in these screens, already happily becoming voluntary virtual ghosts in an increasingly less-physical world.

“Unfriended” opens in theaters Friday.