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Mild Facebook anxiety becomes a supernatural nightmare

By: Pat Padua The Washington Post
September 22, 2017 Updated: September 22, 2017 at 8:56 am
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Alycia Debnam and Liesl Ahlers star in "Friend Request," a film that might have been a socially relevant thriller if it had better character development. MUST CREDIT: Casey Crafford - Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures.

In the age of social media, is being alone the ultimate horror? The mildly creepy thriller "Friend Request" takes Facebook anxiety and turns it into a supernatural nightmare. While that's not a bad idea for a thriller, this footage is unlikely to go viral.

Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey of "Fear the Walking Dead") is a popular college student who has a smile for everybody. Throughout the movie, we're shown an on-screen tally of her Facebook friends count - which, as the story begins, is more than 800. It increases by the second.

One day during a psychology lecture (conveniently on the topic of "Internet Addiction Disorder"), Laura catches the eye of Marina (Liesl Ahlers), a shy, pale transfer student in a black hoodie who, most unusually, has zero friends on Facebook.

That is, until Laura accepts her friend request, setting the plot in motion.

Marina is an artist whose timeline is full of violent, gothic black-and-white animations that look suspiciously like the ad campaign for a horror movie. Laura's attempt to befriend her seems genuine - to a point. But when Marina becomes overly possessive, Laura reluctantly unfriends her, and Marina kills herself.

Or does she? A grisly video of the suicide mysteriously appears on Laura's timeline, and we watch as this once-popular girl's friend count starts to drop.

German director Simon Verhoeven (who co-wrote the script with Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch) taps into a hot-button issue - one with the potential to fuel a socially relevant thriller. But the filmmakers miss that opportunity, never bothering to develop their characters. According to Laura's Facebook profile, she gravitates toward such books about mental illness as "Girl, Interrupted." But her own friends are barely written. The character of Marina ought to resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, but the movie's only creative personality is here depicted as a mere weirdo: one part "Carrie" and one part "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," her talent for hacking persisting from beyond the grave.

Despite a few well-timed jump scares, "Friend Request" never builds much tension. The recent social-media comedy-drama "Ingrid Goes West," while flawed, got more mileage out of its similarly resonant theme. More violent but less sharp, "Friend Request" is an indictment of contemporary society, couched in a gruesome yet predictable package.

It's times like this when you wish there were a dislike button.

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