Remember that gag in The Simpsons with Luke Perry analogue Kyle Darren, as a teen heartthrob whose face transforms into a sea of wrinkles when he smiles?
I tip my hat to you for being able to avoid the embarrassing spectacle of an actor desperately trying to convince the audience they're years younger than they appear by casting people who actually resemble high school students. It adds a nice feeling of authenticity, and if there's one thing I can give Unfriended major props for it's the use of actual search engines and social media sites; nothing ridiculous like FaceParty or YouSearch. Since the entirety of the action unfolds within a teenage girl's computer monitor as she juggles a Skype group chat with her friends while scouring the internet for advice on how to deal with the vengeance-minded spirit of a former classmate, it's important that everything feels as real world as possible.
It's a pretty novel and cool twist on the incredibly tiresome found-footage conceit, and I'll be honest by saying I was actually kinda anticipating this. Unfortunately, once you take away the flashy window dressing, almost nothing aboutUnfriended works at all.
You see, I'm a sucker for revenge stories. Few things satisfy me more than seeing the baddest of the bad receive their much deserved comeuppance. The idea of a girl driven to suicide only to return and punish her tormentors is a pretty solid one, but the way the film executes it feels incredibly confused and problematic. For better and (mostly) worse, you were able to find actors who could hit all the requisite levels of superficiality, despicability, and selfishness I imagine are present amongst many in that age bracket. However, even though it is revealed that our protagonists were somewhat complicit in the events leading up to Laura's death, nothing about their systematic bumping-off holds any real emotional resonance. They aren't callous enough for their deaths to feel justified and satisfying, yet on the flipside they don't even come close to being likeable enough for us to feel sad about what's happening to them. It all feels pretty hollow.
Seeing as the shenanigans are kicked off by a humiliating video of Laura being posted online, I must commend the filmmakers for having the good taste not to adopt a ripped-from-the-headlines approach and have the footage contain a sexual assault. That said, the video basically amounts to nothing more than Laura getting blackout drunk and having an accident. Embarrassing to be sure, but going on to torment her friends feels oddly unearned. Even more eyebrow raising are the implications that in life Laura may have herself been a bully and her conduct could have been far more egregious than those of her victims', despite her near endless moral postulating ("You all deserve this, you're all terrible people", etc). Other than a minor twist or so towards the end, we have people being punished for basically leaving mean comments on YouTube, and an antagonist whose righteousness completely falls apart under the slightest scrutiny, despite the way the film handles her.
Well, what about the scares, you may ask? I must admit that some of the death scenes are well done and even a little disturbing due to how unexpectedly graphic they are, but even then they're severely undercut by the ludicrousness that follows. For instance, after witnessing the horrifying death of one of their friends, the survivors proceed to spend what feels like an eternity screaming, screaming at each other over relatively minor secrets the ghost forces out of them. C'mon guys, big picture. You can argue over who totalled whose truck later.
I appreciate horror that tries to address real life issues, but Unfriended is just a mess on nearly every level. That said, you do have a good eye for age-appropriate casting so hopefully your services will be called upon for the next teen-centric horror exercise.