Cybernatural

The basic plot of Unfriended is as standard-issue as they come. You’ve got six charismatic, photogenic young actors tormented by a mysterious force, which seems to know things it couldn’t possibly know. But two things set the film apart. One is the gimmick — the entire film unfolds in realtime on a single laptop screen. The other is what it has to say about bullies and bullying. (Spoilers ahead for Unfriended.

Bullies are a staple of coming-of-age narratives. For the most part, though, these stories are told from the perspective of the bullied — think Carrie, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Revenge of the Nerds. Unfriended is the rare movie about bullies that’s told from the perspective of the bully, and it’s all the more effective because this fact isn’t immediately obvious.

At the center of Unfriended is a viral video of a high schooler named Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman). The humiliation that followed drove Laura to take her own life. A year after her death, six friends get together for a Skype chat when a mysterious seventh person called “billie227” logs on. Billie227 claims to be the late Laura Barns, and over the course of the next hour forces the friends to spill their secrets and admit their wrongdoing, before killing them off one by one.

Our point of entry into this sordid tale is Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig), on whose computer screen we watch these events take place. Blaire is understandably confused and terrified, but eventually it becomes clear why she and her friends are the targets. As it turns out, Blaire is the one who shot the original video. Her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) posted it. Then their other friends piled on, leaving nasty comments (sample: “kill urself”) for Laura on Facebook and YouTube.

But it takes a while for Blaire’s culpability to come to light. Before we get there, we’ve spent 75 minutes looking at the world through her eyes. Pretty literally, in fact, since we’re seeing exactly the same things on her screen that she is. And Blaire is easy enough to relate to, with her Spotify playlists and Free People shopping habit. By the time we realize Blaire was the original bully, we know her too well to insist she’s nothing like us.

That, in a nutshell, is what’s so remarkable about the bullies in Unfriended: they aren’t remarkable at all. Blaire and her pals are not exceptionally mean or troubled people. Indeed, Blaire repeatedly defends the late Laura to her other friends. Certainly they don’t see themselves as the villains. “We’re good people,” Blaire pleads to billie227, and she means it. (Though by the end, even she has her doubts — we see her agonize a while over whether to tell billie227 that Mitch didn’t do it).

Nor can they really explain why they did what they did. Confronted with screenshots of the cruel comments she and her friends left Laura, Blaire feebly protests that they were “just joking” and that “everyone was doing it.” But those, of course, are not defenses at all. Certainly they don’t help Laura, who suffered comments like theirs until they became too much to bear. The worst of it is that Blaire is, as far as we can tell, being completely genuine when she tells Laura she didn’t mean anything by it.

It’s easy to understand villainy when it looks like purposeful malevolence. Chris Hargensen is making a deliberate statement when she douses Carrie White in pig’s blood. Regina George knows exactly what she’s doing when she spread rumors about Janis Ian. We’d never do that, so that makes us the good guys. Villainy is a lot harder to recognize when it takes the form of indifferent nastiness — you know, the kind of thing we’re all guilty of from time to time.

As anyone who’s spent more than five minutes on a YouTube comments section can attest, the Internet is full of assholes. Over and over, we hear stories about real people who are forced out of their homes or driven to suicide by strangers on the Internet. Some of the harassers come by their comments honestly. They really do wish their targets would die in a fire or get hit by a car.

But many (probably most) of them, when confronted, insist they don’t mean anything by it. Recently, Buzzfeed interviewed two people who went to jail in the U.K. for sending death and rape threats on Twitter. Their explanations for their behavior were as unsatisfying as Blaire’s. “I guess it was just for a laugh, really,” admitted one. “It was trending. […] I decided to join in,” offered the other.

There’s no reason not to believe these people when they say they didn’t “mean it,” just as there’s no reason not to believe Blaire when she insists the same. The point Unfriended is making is that it doesn’t matter.

In Unfriended, the cyberbullying teens get their comeuppance when Laura logs on from beyond the grave. It is, in its way, satisfying. Who hasn’t dreamt of getting back at some Internet troll who’s ruined our day? But Laura isn’t the character we identify with in the movie, Blaire is. And while Laura’s posthumous revenge is pure fantasy, Laura’s original tragedy — in which likable audience stand-in Blaire is the villain — is the stuff of real life.

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