(Dis)connected

For a film that wants desperately to say something about Kids Today and the Internet Age, (Dis)connected sure has a lot of trouble recognizably establishing modern youth and their relationship to technology. Not only do the kids we follow spend all their time—whether dressing, working out, or having sex—with an open line of communication to their e-friends, but we spend the whole first half hour trapped inside of a one-stop social network that gives The Good Wife a run for its money on implausible websites. It’s a bit like Skype, in that people produce live video streams that others see, but it’s one-way, like Twitter, and a bunch of people can watch together, like Google+ (hey, remember Google+?). But what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in claustrophobia. I couldn’t wait for the movie to be over, just so I could get away from the computer. There may have been other factors in my anticipation.

At first (Dis)connected seems like it wants to be explicitly what The Social Network is implicitly, an exploration of how this social network actually fosters alienation, with four isolated stories not so much resonating with each other as repeating each other. But it quickly becomes clear that that’s a little above the producers’ heads, and the film narrows to the issue-oriented wheelhouse of MTV, specifically an anti-cyberbullying PSA. A long, fictional one, but one that unmistakably takes its beats from Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi, among others, in a ripped-from-last-year’s-headlines dramatization.

The problem is that almost nothing feels real. The kids do their best, and one wonders how good they could be on, say, Friday Night Lights, but they’re constrained by the unidimensional writing of didactic cinema. (Dis)connected is a lot closer to an outsider’s guess than an observer’s report. Tellingly or not, I can’t find a writer’s credit, which doesn’t disprove my theory that the aliens who wrote The Hills are back when the producers should have gone with the writers of Skins. For instance, Isaiah, characterized by a military discharge for depression, vlogs first about his rad leather pillow and later about chocolate. Maria, characterized by exhibitionism, keeps a digital leash on boyfriend John that gets into Fatal Attraction territory with pop-up texts in the comically forceful vein of Batman. And Lisa, characterized by staring at herself in the mirror and stepping on the scale and puking, sits around in her underwear on chat, but then, maybe that’s how that works. I don’t know; I missed that True Life.

Throughout the film, Limitless-style comments pop up from basically anonymous strangers, my favorite being “Such a d***!!!” because the Internet is nothing if not PG. It’s silly, but we get it: Anonymity gives people license to act like d***s. But the climax rests on this idea, and it’s just as laughably realized. When Isaiah starts a 4chan-style Ask A Guy Who’s About To OD Anything stream, the four plots finally collide. After an hour and a half of rejection and disaffection, the other three leads shift from confessionalists to angry message board commenters, egging him on like the ghosts in The Shining. Just when we tip over into Reefer Madness, some stranger pipes in with “At least he’s not talking about **********ing chocolate,” the funniest moment in the entire film, and it’s accidental. The facts of the Phoebe Prince case are sitting right in front of you. How hard could it be to believably simulate cyberbullying?

The Lisa story is most interesting, perhaps because it doesn’t feel like a sermon. After weeks of haranguing from a guy she’s talking to or whatever the kids are calling it, he finally convinces her to send him some scandalous pictures, and like every repressed teenager on every teen soap since before Jesse Spano, she goes all the way her first time. You expect something predatory by the way he hounds her for them, but his first reaction strikes closer to that feeling of being confusedly disappointed by something you've anticipated, like a blind date. I believe the Japanese have a word for it. It’s a surprisingly nuanced take that resonates with online dating, but then we realize that, no, that was just clumsy writing. He was in fact preying on her, and now he’s shown her pictures to everyone without her knowledge (although he claims the video has 500 hits, so it’s all relative). Cue Lisa’s friend: “Stay offline, like, don’t go on for a while,” which suggests someone who totally gets how the Internet works. Lisa still doesn’t get it, so the Moment of Truth piano kicks in, like when Community burst the trampoline bubble. “The thing we thought could possibly go wrong, it happened.” To wit: “Whatever you sent him, it’s now online.” Dun dun dun!

The various lessons of (Dis)connected are as obvious as they could possibly be, but roiling together they make rich food for thought. Of course, everyone has already thought about them, and the execution is like a Hong Kong filmmaker working in Hollywood, but the film's heart is in the right place. Too bad its brain couldn’t get there in time. (Dis)connected wants to be perceptive about youth culture without actually doing the legwork, so it winds up a bludgeon that recalls the evening news (“Something you’re doing right now could kill your neighbor’s puppy—details at 10”). So you nod at the moral like you’re humoring your parents, ever comforted by the film’s accidental loophole: Nobody behaves like these kids, so we’re all safe from their dangers.

Stray observations:

  • Michelle Forbes shows up to bring some humanity to a couple scenes as Lisa’s mom. It’s nice to remember Michelle Forbes can sometimes be great without crying.
  • Isaiah’s dream sequence is a welcome bizarre moment. It’s shot in moody black-and-white with artificial grain, like if The Ring video were compiled by The Fresh Prince before moving to Bel Air.
  • I also loved the scene where Isaiah vlog’s about ego while pumping iron, by which I mean one set of 3-4 reps per arm.
  • The final montage, apart from Isaiah’s girlfriend alone on a beach, in case you don’t get it, is the transformation of Isaiah’s profile into a memorial in the way of so many unfortunate Facebook pages. Truly, the film of our times.