On Friend Request, the technology of stalking, and social media's tenuous role in modern filmmaking
Friend Request Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures
Director: Simon Verhoeven
Screenplay: Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch and Simon Verhoeven
Starring: Alycia Debnam-Carey, Connor Paolo, Brit Morgan, William Moseley, Brooke Markham, Sean Marquette, Shashawnee Hall and Liesl Ahlers
Rated R / 1 hour, 32 minutes / 2.35:1
September 22, 2017
(out of four)
From a distance, Friend Request seems like a product of its time. Up close, it's almost an antiquity, one of those strange anomalies that tries to dive into the zeitgeist way too late. Imagine a movie that shows the terrifying underbelly of emails or instant messaging and you'd be right in line.
Every technology - every method of communication - gets its own stalking movies, from personal ads (Single White Female) to personal photography (One Hour Photo). It seems like Facebook should have been well represented by the stalking set by now, ubiquitous as the service has been for the last decade or so - especially given that "Facebook stalking" is casual parlance. Yet - Catfish and its TV spinoff notwithstanding - social media as a whole still hasn't found the cinematic foothold we might expect. Friend Request fills that void in the most obvious way possible, giving us a friendless outcast who finally makes her first Facebook friend, immediately becomes obsessed with her, then later haunts her from beyond the grave.
Say what you will about The Net or Hackers, at least those movies earned their obsolescence the hard way. This movie, directed by Simon Verhoeven (no relation to Paul, I am disappointed to report), steps right into it. It comes along at a time when online "friendships" haven't been a novelty in over a decade; the current generation of teenagers (only slightly younger than the main characters in the film) has never known a world without them. Social media as a conduit for stalking and harassment is hardly an unworkable thesis; just a few months ago we had Ingrid Goes West, an imperfect but brilliantly acted dark comedy about a habitual social-media sycophant who goes from one obsessive manufactured friendship to another. In a sense Friend Request is a humorless, supernatural version of the same story - with the pale, hooded Marina (Liesl Ahlers) becoming all too attached to the pretty and popular Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey). On the bright side, it's much less hacky than "topical" embarrassments like Men Women & Children or Disconnect, with their facile reach for profundity through the lens of modern social technologies. But neither does it get much meaningful use out of social media.
It does try. There are flickers of inspiration here and there. The film employs the laptop webcam as a Medusa's Eye of sorts, freeze-framing the final gaze of each of Marina's victims, who then slip into a lucid - and fatal - nightmare state built largely from her own memories of torment and suffering. Which is to say, Marina is a bit of a stalker-auteur, and the film gets some mileage out of the way personal experiences become a part of one's art. Her Facebook page - on display for her grand total of one (1) friend - is filled with sketches, drawings and animation that expressionistically reveal her difficult past and emotional state of mind. Those creations come to life in the dream states she conjures as her weapon of choice. And they build upon each other - each memory, each fatality, getting ingested into her metaphysical palate like pieces in a pathological mosaic.
The film's horror imagery - both Marina's artwork and the fleshed-out, pseudo-Gothic environments that engulf those she haunts - is actually pretty interesting, in a Tumblr sort of way. Verhoeven and his art department at least seem to care about creating a set of surroundings that operate on a subconscious, nightmarish level, rather than simply using shadows and savvy editing to create the impression of danger. This enhances the film's typical reliance on jump scares, if only because - unlike so many of its horror contemporaries - the impact of each is not the jolt of the jump scare itself, but the actual image. Verhoeven does not manufacture ways for his characters to be mistakenly or temporarily frightened - he gives them good reason to be. Marina's world - which no one paid any attention to in life - is gradually becoming theirs, and they do not belong.
Pity, then, that the film's ultimate intentions are so comparatively mundane. After Marina is "betrayed" - Laura doesn't invite her to a small birthday dinner for family and close friends - and commits suicide as a result, she takes her anger out on Laura by doing everything in her supernatural power to deplete her supply of online friends. From the beyond, she takes control of Laura's Facebook account - posting videos of each death, raising the ire of everyone in Laura's life and the suspicion of the bumbling local cops - and everyone unfriends her, one by one, the prized indicator of her longstanding popularity evaporating before her eyes. Until, presumably, she, too, is as friendless as the lonely girl she spurned.
Relative newcomer Debnam-Carey - an Australian composite of Miley Cyrus and Hillary Duff - makes for a fine lead, even if the script (by Verhoeven, Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch) doesn't give her much to work with. Ahlers is used mostly as an apparition for the last hour of the movie, but her anxious desperation in the early scenes imbues Marina with a memorable sadness.
I have now exhausted the list of things about Friend Request that work. The rest does not. The film is distributed by something called "Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures," which sounds like the kind of completely fake name you'd come up with if you pretended you were a movie producer and someone suddenly put you on the spot and demanded to know the name of your production company. It's like calling a culinary establishment Delicious Food Restaurant, or a record company Musical Music Records. The college at which the film takes place is never officially named, but I'm guessing it's none other than the world-famous Tech State University Institute.
The distributor's executives probably decided to go with the full moniker as opposed to the abbreviation so as not to get itself confused with a Myers-Briggs personality profile, but that's just baseless speculation on my part. Friend Request is just the second distributed film in ESMP's arsenal, following this summer's 47 Meters Down. With a sequel to that movie already in the works, I can only assume the same will be true of this one. Get ready for a decade full of cutting-edge social-media thrillers - like Retweet ... or Die!, 21 Instagrams, and the powerful legal thriller The LinkedIn Lawyer. (I'm sorry.)