Chatroom | reviews, news & interviews
The movie about social media that isn't going to win any Oscars
With its finger-on-the-pulse tagline, “Welcome to the anti-social network” and respectable credentials, Chatroom is an intriguing prospect. It’s based on an acclaimed stage play, directed by the visionary Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water), with a script by Enda Walsh (Hunger) and populated by a cast of bright young things including Aaron Johnson and Imogen Poots. However, this cyber-thriller offers precious few thrills and is hampered cringingly by an absolute lack of authenticity. It is, as its title and tagline suggest, an exploration of the chatroom phenomenon, focusing on five teenagers as they forge friendships in cyberspace; yet it is so hopelessly out of touch with the generation it purports to portray that, although the overarching premise rings (fairly) true, it is for the most part excruciatingly inaccurate.
Encouragingly for Luddites (or any right-minded cinema-goers), relatively little screen time is devoted to text-based internet correspondence, as Nakata and co re-imagine chatroom conversations as face-to-face encounters. Thus the chatroom of the title becomes a "real" room, created by teen firebrand William (Johnson) under the unpromising and obnoxious heading, “Chelsea Teens!” In Chatroom, the internet at large is made manifest as an endless corridor, straight out of a cheap motel – an aesthetic approach which tells us that cyberspace is no longer a shiny novelty but something which has become tawdry, worn and defiled.
William’s chatroom quickly attracts four other teenage participants: Eva (Imogen Poots), Emily (Hannah Murray), Jim (Matthew Beard) and Mo (Daniel Kaluuya). As the group begin to interact and open up, William – an ostensibly charming character - is gradually revealed as a cyberbully with a deeply unpleasant agenda. The film illustrates that, despite their non-traditional method of communication, recognisable teenage relationships still develop. The attractive, "popular" kids - William and Eva - begin a romance, while the vulnerable are coerced into nasty pranks, uncomfortable confessions and worse. Even in a world where relationships exist at (what should be) a considerable remove, bullies and victims emerge, and there is ample potential for manipulation and cruelty. Skipping between the heightened, lurid realisation of the teens’ virtual sanctuaries and the drab depiction of their prosaic reality, it highlights the opportunity for reinvention, as well as the risk of becoming lost in a fantasy, with William in particular peddling a wholly different persona online.
Chatroom draws attention to the confessional nature of social media interaction and the escalated intimacy that this method of communication encourages. By reinventing their correspondences as face-to-face friendships, the film is particularly effective at highlighting the strange abandon and recklessness of being so trusting with strangers. Unfortunately this also means that the whole film seems diabolically artificial, a situation which is exacerbated by consistently unconvincing dialogue, which neither replicates the way teenagers actually speak, nor is any approximation of the way they write. It gives us a world in which its young characters say things like, “Do you allow yourself to have friends?” and “Do you have a wider point?” and, as such, seems utterly phoney.
Furthermore, most of its protagonists are frustratingly under-developed – with the exception of William, who is exposed as the ultimate rebel without (much of) a cause. He is a proficient hacker and amateur animator, whose claymation skits (where he bends Plasticine models to his will) are a glaring nod to his manipulation of the other characters. His is a life of financial privilege but he is troubled by sibling rivalry and a jealous fixation on his mother - a JK Rowling-alike, Grace Rollins (Megan Dodds), who has written a number of über-successful children’s books called the Ripley Time Traveller series, inspired by, and named after, William’s older brother. Part of Chatroom’s credibility hinges on Aaron Johnson’s feasibility as an arch manipulator and twinkle-eyed sociopath (pictured above right). To the film’s considerable detriment, Johnson is quite simply not a charismatic, confident or compelling enough performer to base a film around; his character comes across less as an appealing agitator than an insufferable irritant.
Although the film has plenty to say, none of it is especially original or unexplored and, despite its visual dynamism, Chatroom ultimately fails to transcend its stage origins due to its limited premise and artificial, misjudged dialogue, which falls jarringly from the mouths of babes.
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