The Unfriended movies – along with director Joe Swanberg’s terrific contribution to the 2012 anthology film VH/S – might have pioneered the genre of social media-based found-footage horror, but because the terrors they depicted were mostly of the invented, fantastical variety (supernatural revenge, invading aliens, murderous underground societies, etc.), the door was left open for a more grounded, real-world take on those films’ central conceit.
That thinking likely led to the recent, favorably reviewed Hollywood release Searching, a missing-persons mystery that plays out on a series of computer and smartphone screens, as well as its independently produced counterpart, Live – a cautionary tale-cum-thriller about a woman’s kidnapping that’s captured during one of her Facebook Live broadcasts.
It’s not hard to see Live writer/director Michael Greene’s point – that showcasing one’s life in such a way via social media can have the unintended side effect of attracting undue, and potentially dangerous, attention. Greene is mostly successful in avoiding the urge to go over-the-top, and thus, Live‘s relative realism and sidestepping of suspense-movie cliches are what make the film a decent enough – if not particularly shocking or complex – an exploration of that timely, not unjustifiable fear.
Staged as a compilation of videotaped interviews, security camera feeds, and – most prominently – the aforementioned Facebook Live feeds, Live chronicles a private investigator’s search for Linda Johnson (Kellie Greene), a young Los Angeles divorcee whose weeks-earlier disappearance has been handled with far too little urgency or care by the LAPD. The P.I., Eddie B. Hill (credited as the film’s technical adviser and playing himself), has been contracted not by Linda’s friends or family, but rather by a mysterious hacker named Patrick Flannagan (Sean Sullivan McBride), who presents himself as a concerned citizen and hosts an internet live stream of his own – one in which, his face hidden by a ski mask, he angrily rants about the injustices of our media-obsessed society.
“…a young divorcee whose disappearance has been handled with far too little urgency or care by the LAPD.”
Fearing for Linda’s life, Hill submits to the police an archive of Linda’s Facebook Live videos, which we see in their entirety. Inspired to start live streaming by her recent separation from her husband, Linda starts out by broadcasting the usual, inconsequential things happening in her daily life: thoughts about changing her hairstyle, lunch dates with a close male friend (Sentwali Holder), a boozy girls’ night at home with her coworkers, etc. Gradually, though, her live streams begin to reveal the increasing dissolution of her personal and professional life – and, soon, ominous signs pointing toward her looming abduction begin to creep into them, as well.
Its conceptual hook is certainly compelling, but Live does take its time in getting where it’s going, and Greene risks losing his audience by occasionally letting Linda’s live stream sequences go on a lot longer than they should. While they’re largely free of any real suspense until the film’s final third, though, these scenes are often well-handled as character drama and have the ring of real life to them; a confrontation between Linda and her ousted husband, for example, is effectively tense and uncomfortable even though it never progresses into any kind of violence.
With significantly more screen time than anyone else in the film, Kellie Greene turns in a credible, often nicely understated performance that helps a lot in selling the illusion that Linda is a real person rather than a fictional character. Most of the limited supporting cast is similarly naturalistic in their portrayals, though Linda’s assailant and a few of the detectives working her case from time to time lapse into distinctly movie-like histrionics that threaten viewers’ suspension of disbelief.
“…a credible, often nicely understated performance that helps a lot in selling that Linda is a real person…”
What hurts Live more than its few monotonous stretches or stray moments of overacting, though, is that the film hints at some sinister, sadistic “dark web” villainy happening (mostly) off-screen that it doesn’t really commit to or develop. These elements not only come off as half-baked but because they’re more fanciful and far-fetched than anything else in the movie, they also strain credibility and somewhat detract from the more plausible aspects of Linda’s situation. The occasional moment of questionable logic has the same effect; audiences are likely to be left scratching their heads at things like the complete lack of any police presence at the home of a missing person. Also: the use of movie- and TV-inspired character names for most of the Facebook friends who comment on Linda’s live streams is a nearly unforgivable hit to Live‘s verisimilitude for viewers who are paying attention.
None of those flaws, though, is enough to completely derail Greene’s effort – the smart choices in Live‘s approach do outweigh the questionable ones, if not by a huge margin. The film is refreshing in the way that it doesn’t over-sensationalize what could be very lurid material, and it displays a keen perceptiveness in some of its depictions of modern life both online and off; a traffic-stop scene in which Linda, a black woman in a post-Sandra Bland/Philando Castile world, takes fearful precaution to avoid escalating the situation with the officer who’s pulled her over, feels sad, stingingly truthful. If Live could have maintained that level of insight throughout, it might have been a must-see, but even as-is, the film has its share of moments that will stick with viewers – and maybe make them hesitate a second or two before hitting the record button next time they fire up Facebook Live.
Live (2018) Written and directed by Michael Greene. Starring Kellie Greene, Eddie B. Hill, Sean Sullivan McBride, Asante Jones, Sentwali Holder, Giovanni Lopes, Norman Towns.
6 out of 10