Unfriended redefines art direction for the webcam era

Unfriended redefines art direction for the webcam era

This year’s Oscar nominations will be announced on January 14. Will the Academy uphold conventional wisdom or think outside of the box? With Oscar This, we highlight unlikely candidates—the dark horses we’d love to see compete.

Unfriended won’t get within spitting distance of next week’s Academy Award nominations: As a teen-geared horror film, it doesn’t fit the requisite prestige-pic profile. But in a perfect world, it’d be garnering year-end consideration for its production design. This might seem like an odd thing to say about a movie that takes place entirely within the confines of a computer screen, but its ingeniously calibrated pile-up of digital graphics is a fully realized visual environment—one of the most wholly immersive movie spaces of the year, and the most stylistically successful riff on the “found footage” genre since Paranormal Activity.

Unfriended takes place over the course of 90 minutes, in real time. But the desktop backdrop permits multiple planes of time and space. Here, a YouTube page can serve the purpose of a flashback: The film opens on grainy, amateur video of a high-school girl, Laura Barns, committing suicide in a public place—a startling opening that evokes Benny’s Video (1992). And Michael Haneke’s cautionary parable about disaffected, medium-cool adolescence is as much a reference point as Paranormal Activity and its sequels; here, the malevolent ghost in the machine is the spirit of Laura, who decides to take revenge on the classmates who she believes drove her to death one year ago by posting an unflattering video online.

The cynical view is that Unfriended’s desktop aesthetic, borrowed from Nacho Vigaldondo’s Open Windows, is just a gimmick. But it feels more like a real breakthrough in mise-en-scènea kind of online production design that fixes the action in a time and place as surely as the costumes and vintage props in a period piece (which, in a way, Unfriended certainly is). The use of Facebook and Skype as structuring devices is brilliant: The sites’ standardized graphics and typefaces imply real-life social networks intertwining circa 2015.

The potentially infinite points of connection and contrast permitted by new media are showcased as the tab showing the snuff video is closed and another one opens up into some Skyped sex play between high-school sweethearts Blaire (Shelley Hennig) and Mitchell (Moses Jacob Storm), who vamp for their respective webcams. But because we’re looking at Blaire’s computer screen, we can see all the things her hands are doing just out of Mitchell’s view—texting friends, surfing websites, or clicking through a playlist at the bottom of her taskbar. Immediately, Unfriended establishes a provocative dichotomy between how people present themselves online and what they’re actually thinking and doing at their keyboards, and as more characters join the fray via a group chat—infiltrated by the late and apparently supernaturally empowered Laura—we’re cued to realize that an equally compelling movie could potentially be made from their respective, digitally mediated points of view.

In interviews, Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves explained that Unfriended was rehearsed more like a play than a movie, and filmed with its actors in separate rooms, each at a computer of their own as a way of “joining” the shoot in progress. Since the characters go in and out of the story at different points, they could use the breaks to take direction via text message. The original plan was to shoot the film in a series of 10-minute takes, but Hennig found it hard to get her energy up each time and asked if they could try to do the whole thing in one go, which is supposedly what was captured in the final cut.

Even leaving aside its horror movie elements, Unfriended is thick with tension between the claustrophobic containment of the screen and the portals that get opened up to different places, people, and bits of plot information with each new program, file, or web page. This is an amazingly pressurized movie in the sense that it reflects—and also satirizes—its target teenage audience’s experience with the rituals and rhythms of online life. It unfolds as a tangle of pop-up ads, slow-loading videos, and stalled programs, all of which are presented with amazing fidelity, right down to the plausibly misspelled texts and dozens of hastily erased and rewritten IMs. It feels in many ways like the first movie produced for a generation that takes multi-tasking as second nature, and it exploits that distraction for dramatic effect.

That the film is never boring despite its static situation is a testament to how skillfully the real estate has been divided up. There’s real excitement in the way that Gabriadze activates different parts of the screen and forces the viewer to keep up. The distracting aspects of the presentation aren’t a bug; they’re a feature. It’s a cliché to say that a visually complex film is designed for multiple viewings, but it’s true in this case: Images and text that seemingly exist on the periphery of the story take on greater significance when glimpsed for a second time.

In a moment when a lot of movie special effects are judged by how seamlessly they’re integrated with “real” actors and locations, Unfriended cuts out the middle man. It even reverses the basic dynamic by entrapping its characters in a 13-by-9-inch virtual space that reduces them to ones and zeroes for the duration. There’s a case to be made here that Unfriended is one of the most innovatively directed, shot, designed, and edited movies of the year. The fact that it’s difficult to pull apart those separate elements within the context of its unusual production model should only embolden its supporters further.