Thursday, December 1, 2022

Unfriended (2014) is actually great


When Unfriended originally came out, I was a teenager, and a pretentious teenager at that. I thought myself a film connoisseur  because I'd seen Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and liked it. Needless to say, I thought I was above the teen horror movie about a ghost that attacks its old friends via the internet.  I'm sure I saw the YMS video on Unfriended and blindly agreed that the movie was bad because YMS sounded smart. 

Well, the adult version of me is far more forgiving and a bit less pretentious. 

I watched Unfriended with my ex-girlfriend this time last year and I absolutely loved it. Of course, it's not perfect, but it's great nonetheless. 

If you were a teenager in the late 2000s and early 2010s, then you probably remember all the anti-cyberbully propaganda that we constantly had to endure. Long lectures from teachers, assemblies organized by police, and, worst of all, the films. 

Oh, the anti-cyberbully films. 

The most famous example is probably the 2011 teen drama Cyberbully, which depicts a young affluent girl who's harassed over the internet into attempting suicide. There's no doubt about it, Cyberbully is an activist film, whose main goal is to warn teens about the dangers of the internet.

Of course, when there's any popular topic in the American zeitgeist, then there are horror movies the jump on the bandwagon. 

There's Megan is Missing from 2011, #Horror from 2015, and the other Cyberbully also from 2015. 

The most famous  — and actually released in theaters — is the subject of this blog post. Again, being a teen in this particular era, I was sick of seeing movies by adults who didn't seem to understand either the internet or the young adults who used it. 

Movies like Cyberbully (2011) invented fake social media platforms to avoid copyright and seemed to assume that us teens didn't know how to be safe on the internet. Unlike the adults who made these movies, however, we mostly grew up on the internet and understood its culture.

While it's that social media has negative side effects (i.e. depression, anxiety, etc.), it's not like us teens were naive. We knew that we could be bullied over the internet and we knew how to keep ourselves safe. We'd basically been using the internet since we were in the womb, after all. 

All that is to say that Unfriended — a movie that I assumed would be a stupid gimmicky horror movie that jumped on the fear-of-cyber-bullying bandwagon — was and is one of the most accurate depictions of teen life in the early 2010s. 

If you're unfamiliar, Unfriended is sort of a found footage horror movie, but with a twist; the entire film takes place from the perspective of its main character's laptop. It's the most popular early example of a "Screen Life" horror movie. There were SL movies before like The Collingswood Story (2002), but Unfriended was, again, actually in theaters.

Our perspective-character is Blaire (Shelley Hennig), a pretty, popular, and affluent teen girl. She's slightly alternative, though, because she wears a flannel shirt. Meaning while Blaire is certainly popular, she's dipped her toe in the grunge revival/indie sleaze trend of the 2010s.

I mention Blaire's fashion because, in a typical movie, her look is the only way to visually characterize her. In Unfriended, however, we get supplementary visual characterization through Blaire's desktop screen. 

Like I said, Unfriended, unlike other similar movies, uses actual websites that people use in real life. As soon as the movie starts, we see that Blaire uses a Mac, meaning that she comes from a wealthy family and is not terribly tech savvy. Likewise, we see what tabs she has open on her browser. 

Blaire has been looking at Tumblr, meaning that she's a bit alternative. On the other hand, she has the Teen Wolf and Forever 21 website open, meaning that she's interested in typical teen pop-media of the time. Using conterminous pop-culture signifies, young audiences of the time understand what type of person Blaire is. 

Likewise, to add to the dichotomy between popular and alternative, we see that Blaire has both BitTorrent and Spotify installed on her computer. Spotify being a service that typical teens use, while BitTorrent is a service that only alternative users are aware of. At the time, most people stopped pirating and shifted to streaming. 

Blaire briefly opens up a Spotify playlist as well, which has songs by bands like Imagine Dragons and Of Monsters and Men (i.e. "Tumblr" music), as well as songs by JAY Z and Lady Gaga (i.e. typical pop music). 

I've highlighted all these example because it illustrates how much Unfriended understands teen subcultures at the time. There weren't movie before Unfriended that understood the difference between a user who frequents Tumblr and a user who frequents the Forever 21 website. It is through Unfriended's accurate deception and knowledge of teen culture that we (i.e. teens of the time) can understand who exactly Blaire is. 

Blaire someone who can blend both with the alternative scene kids and with the popular preppy kids. She's occupies both online spaces. She's able to be artistic and (the teen version of) deep while also going to parties and mingling with the popular kids. It's the reason why she's friends with both Ken (a gamer, 4chan guy who vapes) and Adam (a handsome rich boy who owns a gun). 

Such accuracy does not just extend to characterization. Unfriended, too, uses its understanding of online spaces and culture to reflect prevalent anxieties of contemporary teenagers. 

While as I said in the beginning, I'm sure every teen was sick of hearing about cyberbullying from adults, we were nonetheless anxious about how our friends could abuse use over the internet. 

In Unfriended, the horror comes from the character Laura. Basically, Laura got black out drunk and shat her pants one night, and one of the friends recorded it and put the clip on YouTube. After that, Laura committed suicide in a park while a stranger filmed her, and, again, the clip was uploaded to the internet (this time on LiveLeak). The film takes place one year later while Laura's ghost haunts the internet. 

Themes of bullying, suicide, and social alienation as a result of the internet are all common themes of those cyberbullying propaganda movies I mentioned earlier, but here it's different. It's more real — I mean, besides all the paranormal stuff. 

Unfriended takes those same moralistic themes and flips them on their head. By seeing a more accurate depiction of online spaces, we, thus, see a more accurate depiction of exactly how people interact in those online spaces.    

We see social alienation as a result of online isolation rear its ugly head in this film. As it progresses, we learn more about Laura, her suicide, and her friend group (i.e. the main characters of the film). 

 One major critique I see of Unfriended is that its characters are "unlikable." Again, the argument was made in the YMS review I referenced earlier, as well as lesser-known reviews like that of former-Channel Awesome producer Phelous.

Indeed, the characters are cruel to one another. They talk shit behind each other's backs, they lie to one another (as seen in the finale), and, most of all, they bully their friend into committing suicide. I can see why arm-chair critics wouldn't like such characterization; after all, shitty friends had become something of a trope in horror movies since Eli Roth's Cabin Fever. I'd argue, though, that the "unlikability" means something deeper. 


Going back to 2011's Cyberbully, characters are depicted as basically either good or bad. Bullies are essentially cruel for no reason. They use their online platform be cruel to the main character Taylor — who, by the way, is nothing but morally good. Samantha, Taylor's best friend, bullies the her for no reason other than the veil of online anonymity gave her the means to do so. 

On the surface, Unfriended has a similar dynamic, right down to the Laura's best friend (Blaire) bullying her for seemingly no reason. Again, on a surface level examination, we see the same dynamic from Cyberbully, but through the accurate portrayal of online spaces and contemporaneous cultural signs, Unfriended does something much better.

We see, front and center, the distinction between character's online personas and their real-world actions. On the surface, Blaire is an earnest and friendly girl who loves her boyfriend and whose best friend died tragically by her own hands — this is the persona Blaire has cultivated in her public-facing social media (i.e. her Facebook page).

In the film's final reveal, we learn who Blaire actually is: she's a bully who ultimately pushed Laura to take her own life by anonymously posting an embarrassing video. By contrast with film's like Cyberbully, the audience is shown exactly how Blaire is able to be both her public persona and her darker bully persona. 

At the beginning of the Skype call, the characters are not speaking to one another genuinely. Instead, they are speaking to each other's public-facing social media personas. They have all done things to harm one another (i.e. Blaire cheating on Matt, or Matt ratting out Adam to the cops) and they all know it, but they don't acknowledge that. Essentially, they have cultivated a culture where individuals have two different personas. They are alienated not only from one another, but from themselves.

This is all to say that through the anonymity of the internet, characters are allowed to have a persona that the use in public and one that they use in private; both, however, are broadcast to their peers. The culture of double-edged inauthentic personas exists because characters allow it to. No one, other than Laura at the end, spills the beans. No one is honest with one another. Blaire knows that she made Laura's embarrassing video, Adam probably knows that she did it too, but neither of them acknowledge it because it doesn't reflect their public personas. 

We see the distinction between private and public personas relatively early on when Val joins the call. Right before Val hops on, the characters stop to acknowledge that no one likes her, but their tone quickly shifts when talking to Val directly. Essentially, we see characters briefly acknowledging their private personas before quickly shifting back to their friendlier public personas. The cruel behavior exhibited by the main characters is not only encouraged, but rewarded by affirmation from one another.

When Blaire bullied Laura, it was encouraged by her peers. Such behavior only becomes despicable when it's acknowledged in the wrong forum. Blaire doesn't feel bad that she drove her best friend to suicide, she feels bad when everyone knows she did it — she's ashamed when Laura's ghost posts the video to Blaire's Facebook. 

In the film's climax, we see the culture of unauthentic personas manifest. Laura digs up dirt on each main character and forces them to acknowledge their baggage over their Skype call. Ultimately, this is what destroys the friend group: each character's private ugly persona is demonstrated in the improper forum; a forum wherein characters are meant to express only their positive public personas.

Blaire is an affluent and popular teenage girl who loves her boyfriend; Blaire is an alternative girl who uses Tumblr and BitTorrent; Blaire's best friend is Laura who died tragically; Blaire is a bully who pushed her friend to suicide. Blaire is many different people on many different forums.

Through a refined and accurate portrayal of early-2010s teen internet culture, Unfriended teaches us that there's a reason why the internet is a forum for backstabbing and bullying: because people allow unauthentic personas to prevail; people allow their peers to be cruel to one another as long as they do it in the proper forum. Ultimately, the double-life propagated by online teen culture creates alienation within peer groups. One is not sure who their friends really are when each person can be two people at once. 


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