Tech-savvy ‘Unfriended’ would have benefitted from character reboot

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BY RICHARD ROEPER | SUN-TIMES MOVIE COLUMNIST

Earlier this year, the superb sitcom “Modern Family” told an entire episode from the viewpoint of Claire’s laptop as she waited for a flight home from O’Hare Airport.

Sure, it was gimmicky, but it worked beautifully. For hardcore fans of the show (such as yours truly), everything rang true, from Claire’s homepage to Mitchell’s experience with a new birthday present to Jay’s fumbling with technology.

Which brings us to one of the major problems with “Unfriended,” a high school cyber-thriller told in real time through the desktop experiences of a popular teenage girl as she Skypes with her best friends on the one-year anniversary of the suicide of a girl they all knew.

Whether it’s that “Modern Family” episode or the experimental-for-its-time “Blair Witch Project” or “The Ring” or even your typical cliché-riddled teen horror film, we usually know a lot or at least know SOMETHING about the main characters before the plot sets in.

In “Unfriended,” which drags and lags even with a running time of just 82 minutes, the main three female and three main male characters are nearly interchangeable in their personality traits and even their bland good looks, save for the one wisecracking, overweight guy (who of course is the computer geek of the group).

Shelley Hennig is Blaire, a fresh-faced, popular, seemingly sweet girl who was once BFFs with Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who took her own life after she was the subject of a humiliating video that went viral and led to numerous commenters telling her she should kill herself.

Blaire is in the midst of a mildly racy Skype session with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) when their friends crash the call. The group eventually includes the preening, hot-tempered Adam (Will Peltz); the aforementioned computer geek Ken (Jacob Wysocki); and Jess (Renee Olstead) and Val (Courtney Halverson), attractive, trash-talking girls, and that’s about as much as we really get to know about those two.

Director Levan Gabriadze captures the Social Media experience with pinpoint accuracy, from Skype calls to Google Chat to Instagram to YouTube, to Blaire’s cursor wandering to Spotify and then back to the group phone call and then over to a side chat with her boyfriend.

It’s all very accurate and eventually quite tedious. I never thought I’d say this about a feature film, but “Unfriended” would probably be a little more effective on an iPad or a laptop. On the big screen, all the pointing and clicking and texting is headache-inducing.

As Blaire and her friends give each other a hard time and flirt and tease and joke around, an uninvited guest joins the conversations. At first it’s a nuisance to the group, but then it becomes creepy, as the guest claims to be none other than Laura, who’s been dead for more than a year, which usually makes it difficult to update one’s status, post videos and join in on the Skype conversations.

Blaire is sent to a website espousing the ludicrous belief the dead can haunt their tormentors via cyberspace — and YOU CAN’T ESCAPE UNLESS YOU ADMIT WRONGDOING. Could it be it’s really Laura playing mind games with them and threatening to end their lives?

Blaire and her friends become increasingly unhinged as “Laura,” or whoever is playing this sick joke, reveals ugly truths about each of them and says she’ll kill anyone that tries to log off the conversation.

And all the while, we’re on Blaire’s computer screen, watching these dimwits text and chat and scream and cry and generally behave like morons. You might well be asking, where are the parents? Why don’t these kids unplug their computers and get together in person? Well, they can’t do that, for the same reason movie families never move out of obviously haunted houses after two days of ghostly moans in the middle of the night. If they exhibited a modicum of intelligence, it would kill the movie.

The acting is actually pretty solid. These characters are never in the same room, so the performances amount to a collection of solo scenes.But these kids aren’t likable. Perhaps director Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves intended to create a Social Media “Scream” and a commentary on cyber-bullying, but “Unfriended” comes across as disdainful of millennials.

An even bigger crime? It’s a scary movie with nary a single scary moment.

‘UNFRIENDED’ [s3r star=2/4] Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Levan Gariadze and written by Nelson Greaves. Rated R (for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use, all involving teens). Running time : 82 minutes. Opening today at local theaters.

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