Someone's in the house. He's watching. He's creeping round, only you can't see him. He's watching you from the walls. He's right behind you now. Looking over your shoulder. He wants the remote control. He's a bad boy. He wants to watch bad movies. Bad bad Ronald...

Friday, September 23, 2011

PEEPHOLE REVIEW: @UrFrenz (2011)

It's teen o'clock -- do you know where your kid is? 

 @UrFrenz is a startling look at the real life perils that many of our teenage kids face. Inspired by the cyber-bullying case of Megan Meier, @UrFrenz isn’t content to be the formulaic “wake up, parents” Lifetime movie. Instead, it opens the front door and walks straight up to your kid’s room and shows you the real secret life of an American teenager.

The opening shot finds Catherine (Lily Holleman) running as fast as she can, trying to escape whatever is haunting her. She collapses to the ground, opening up her phone to read a text, and then lets out a guttural, tortured scream. Cut to Catherine, back in her room, before it all started. She’s a “cutter.” In front of her mirror she surveys self-inflicted scars across her stomach, arms, and thighs. The scars have healed, but she hasn’t. Her pain stems, in part, from her outsider status at school, but probably mostly from the breakup of a childhood friendship. Madison (Najarra Townsend) has joined the popular crowd, leaving her awkward friend behind as a minor casualty. This may be just a coming-of-age lesson for most kids, but Catherine’s lack of self worth and depression has put her on edge, so much so, that her mother, Beth (CaroleAnne Johnson), has locked all the knives, scissors and sharp objects away in a heavy lock box.

Catherine's a good kid. She tries to move on, forging a new friendship and taking her meds. But, after overhearing Madison’s ex brag about getting some post-breakup oral from Madison, Catherine thoughtlessly relays the gossip to her friend. And this is where the trouble starts. When Madison’s mom, Debbie (Gayla Goehl), gets wind of it, she secretly plots against her daughter’s former BFF for her supposed gossiping. With the help of Jacob (Michael Robert Kelly), her new young gofer at work, she creates a UrFrenz account (a fictional version of FaceBook/MySpace) under the pseudonym Brandon, a fake stud teen boy who will take an interest in the insecure loner (in Catharine’s fleshed out fantasy chat sessions, Brandon is played by James Maslow). Like a pissed off middle school girl with low blood sugar, Debbie created this persona to needle Catherine into confessing that she's spread rumors about her daughter. But, something else seems to be at play here, as Debbie's tapped into her inner Mean Girl, and viciously aims to cause major damage in Catherine’s life. She succeeds. Possibly beyond her wildest intentions.

Director Jeff Phillips blends natural dialogue and performances with the dynamic handheld camera work of J. Soren Viuf, to put the emphasis on character. Working from his own screenplay, Phillips shrewdly avoids the preachy tone so familiar in the scare film sub-genre, and makes the message hard hitting and unmistakable. @UrFrenz is not just a one-note warning that “this could happen to your child!” In an age where parents become so overprotective, and abuse the “kids will be kids” rhetoric, Phillips sends out @UrFrenz as a shoulder-shaking wake up call for parents to, not just become more aware, but to take an active and responsible role in their kid’s lives. Wide berth is given to the facts of the story, because really, the facts don’t matter once Debbie lets her wrecking ball swing. It doesn’t matter if Madison hooked up with her ex, or not. It doesn’t matter if Catherine dropped the gossip out of spite, or just as release. The facts won’t change the catastrophe that follows, once the momma bear lashes out to protect her cub.

Phillips has done a great job at making his film accessible, because really -- this movie needs to be seen! The kids in this film talk like kids, not with the pop culture eloquence of a John Hughes character. Their discussions are tempered, but urgent at the same time – they’re not gonna spill their beans at every turn. And the parents aren’t the wise, stern, but tender loving kind – and they certainly don’t have all the answers. The teens in the audience will surely find much that is familiar: bullying, clique wars, sexting, suicide.  The bonus is that they'll get a look at these topics from a neutral, but unglamorous standpoint. As well, the parents will get involved, not just out of fear, but from the information available. Phillips script provides them a lesson, at the hands of Debbie’s office intern, Jacob, on the ins and outs of the cyber chat world: how kids talk and what they think, the hip Internet speak… All of this, mashed up with some breakout performances by Lily Holleman and Najarra Townsend, make @UrFrenz a must see.

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