I’m “biast” (con): not a big horror fan
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
If you’ve seen 2015’s Unfriended — about a bunch of high school students who are tormented online by the evil spirit of a classmate who was recently bullied into suicide — then you’ve already seen Friend Request, which is about a bunch of college students who are tormented online by the evil spirit of a classmate who recently committed suicide as the ultimate passive-aggressive response to being ignored. And in fact, this “new” movie has been languishing unreleased in the US for a year and a half, perhaps to get more air between it and the earlier film. (Most of the rest of the world saw Friend Request in early 2016.)
I could almost just cut and paste my review of Unfriended here and you’d hardly notice, except that Unfriended attempted a bare minimum of freshness by presenting its “OMG Facebook is haunted!” story solely via a laptop screen in a screengrabs-meet-found-footage sort of way. It didn’t improve the blah story or unlikable characters, but at least the movie tried. Friend Request doesn’t even try. It goes out of its way to not try: This is actually a German production, shot in Cape Town, and the international cast speaks English with an American accent. Somehow it achieves a personality-free from-nowhere blandness.
Not that it matters in the least, but generic white girl Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey: Into the Storm), who is all duckfaces and volunteer charity work on her profile, is the most wishy-washy kind of socially successful: she likes everyone, and Likes everyone, even creepy new girl Marina (Liesl Ahlers), who dyes her hair black and wears a hoodie so you know she’s weird. But Marina challenges Laura’s popular-girl faux niceness by daring to insist that the two young women be real friends, not merely “friend request accepted” friends, like by hanging out IRL and stuff. This is not to be tolerated by Laura, of course — Marina is just a little too needy, and it simply doesn’t look good to be hanging out with the spooky girl — but Laura very quickly learns that you cannot brush someone off by denying that you will be popular-kid partying that evening when all your fellow popular kids will be posting happy pix to their timelines all night long. Soon, sulky excluded Marina turns stalkerish and Laura has to unfriend her — “this chick is just damaged,” her boyfriend, Tyler (William Moseley: Margarita with a Straw, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), sagely informs her — and suddenly it’s all suicide videos posted on the university web site and haunted profiles and mysterious “unknown errors” on FB and oh no “someone’s still uploading things” to dead Marina’s account, like sinister pseudo-The Ring videos.
Clearly, there is something supernatural going on, because, sure, that’s what could possibly be wrong with Facebook. (The movie never actually shows us a Facebook logo, but… it’s Facebook.) If only screenwriters Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch, and director Simon Verhoeven had even a single clue about why Facebook is genuinely insidious! I’m not talking about how your News Feed keeps switching back to “Top Stories” immediately after you change it to “Most Recent,” or even how FB lets people target ads to neo-Nazis. I am talking about the false sense of intimacy that social media can lend to online interactions. I’m talking about how willingly and happily we’ve given ourselves over to a self-surveillance society. (To be “fair,” Unfriended didn’t succeed at this either.) Friend Request thinks it’s scary that a creepazoid dead girl haunting FB won’t let you delete your account… but just try getting the real FB to actually delete all your information. It’s almost impossible to do so, certainly not quickly or easily, and with potential, actual real-world consequences that cannot be dismissed as horror fantasy.
That’s the sort of thing that a truly chilling psychological horror movie about our new digital lives could explore. Hell, you could make a scary-funny Jane Austen-meets-Seinfeld-in-the-21st-century flick about online social etiquette. (Just what are the rules about accepting friend requests, anyway?) Friend Request would rather indulge in familiar random paranormal jump scares and the most obvious resolution imaginable. Click away now.