“Friend Request”: A co-ed gets blamed for a malware attack from a (suicide-deceased) Facebook friend, and then the movie sinks to horror

Friend Request” (2016), directed by Sam Verhoeven starts out as if it could become a hard-hitting drama about personal social media risks, but soon winds down into conventional horror.  As the bodies or “victims” pile up, the film loses narrative cohesion.

On a typical undergraduate campus, Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey), popular with 800+ Facebook friends (the film calls it “Facefinder”) gets a friend request from a lonely girl Ma (Liesl Ahlers), who has zero friends.  Laura has seen her in a hoodie, by herself, in a cafeteria;  and, doing a little Google-hacking, Laura sees that she seems to be good at art and drawing, with an online library of disturbing and drak drawings and animated videos (all black and white) about a dark forest, caves, and especially a black mirror.

Shortly after the friending, everyone on campus sees a video of Ma immolating herself.  Laura is accused on have spread the video.  The campus police and dean demand she remove the video and then her Facebook account, but every time she tries she gets an “unknown error”.  She is told that she is responsible for what happens with her personal social media accounts even if a hacker caused them – which is a good legal and ethical issue to explore further in film.  The problem goes along with identity theft: what happens if illegal behavior online (whether c.p. distribution or terror recruiting) is done in your name? What if it’s overseas only (another wrinkle)?

Pretty soon the entire campus is hacked (even the Mac’s, not just Windows) and overflowing with malware, of course (ransomware and bitcoin don’t get specifically mentioned), and then Laura starts seeing visions based on Ma.  Her boyfriend Tyler (William Moseley), a medical student and wonderful person, tries to help, and so does the “ethical hacker” Kobe (Connor Paolo (from “Revenge” – here he could well lose the hand tattoos) .  But as the film unravels, all of her Friends drop off because they get killed, or converted to ghosts, or moved to another universe or something.  Spoiler: even Tyler and Kobe are going to get it.  (Note: like Timothee Chalamet, Connor Paolo has training as a classical pianist.)

To get back to the ethical issues, it struck me that somebody ought to make a film about the 2014 Sony hack, given all the problems with North Korea.  Hollywood is probably not very eager to do this.

The film starts in the middle (the way Jorge Ameer’s films do) with a male psychology professor scolding Laura for addiction to her iPhone in class before he notes that anyone who reposts the suicide video even on their own social media will be expelled.  I can remember only one classroom discipline issue in college – when a zoology professor got after someone and asked “Would you like to lecture?”

The film was shot in Capetown, South Africa, but the story is location neutral (which screenwriting classes encourage).  The “accents” are American; the license plates in the film are California. Capetown now has a severe water crisis, which might be driven by climate change.

It may seem ironic to watch the film now given vlogger Logan Paul’s recent incident with a video involving suicide.

Capetown panorama (wiki).

Name: “Friend Request”
Director, writer:  Sam Verhoeven
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  2018/1/31 Amazon video
Length:  92
Rating:  R
Companies:  Entertainment Studios, Lionsgate
Link:  official
Stars:  2 out of 5  (**—)

(Posted: Thursday, February 1, 2018, at 11:30 AM EST)