Saturday, September 24, 2011

Jeff Phillips' @urFRENZ takes a timely look at internet use by children -- and parents

Beginning with the shot of an anorexic-looking young woman (she cuts herself, too) taking pills, getting dressed and then being quizzed by her BFF about the possibility of having sex with a new squeeze, @urFRENZ, the new beware-the-internet movie from writer/director Jeff Phillips, might set you to thinking you were (already) watching a dour remake of the delightful and smart Easy A. Sure enough, Phillips' movie is taking a page from the playbook of other internet films -- from Chatroom to Trust to the grand-daddy of spurious-web-identity tales, Craig Lucas' The Dying Gaul.

The good news is that Mr. Phillips (shown at right) has staked out his own claim to the area, by showing us what can happen when parents (even with what might pass for good intentions) start using the web with an assumed identity. At the end of the film, we are told that it was based on real events, and if you've been combing the newspaper over the past year or so, you'll perhaps have read about just such things. (The New York Times did a very long and fascinating article about this some weeks, maybe even months, back.)

Despite its initially seeming pretty teenage-typical, @urFRENZ, due to quite decent writing, directing and acting, pulls you into its tale of unhappy high school girls (they look like post-college grads, but this is fairly standard casting for R-rated teen films) and the parents who ostensibly love them -- but have some very odd ways of showing that love.

The saddest of the girls is outsider Catharine (Lilly Holleman, above) who used to be friend with the more popular Madison (Najarra Townsend, below), and a certain young man named Brandon who "friends" them both, eventually, on the movie's titular internet site. Who Brandon is fairly quickly becomes apparent, and provides the movie with its moral quandary, as well as its warning about the dangers of fighting fire with fire.

The filmmaker has done a particularly good job with his various family scenes; they have the ring of truth (and the boredom of inter-generational mealtime down pat). I wish he had not opted for two too many coincidences -- one of which places a character in exactly the right place at the right time to overhear a certain conversation. This is convenient, all right, but it also deadens the reality. Other than that, the movie, despite its having a couple of heavy-duty dramatic scenes, generally manages to avoid melodrama and keep us believably on course.

While all the performacnes are good, the movie belongs to the actress who play's Madison' mom: Gayla Goehl (above, left, with Michael Robert Kelly, who plays her intern and internet guide).  Ms Goehl is feisty, funny, caring, and finally frighteningly stupid as the fake web identity from hell. Truth and trust, gossip and reputation are all given a going-over by the film. And while nothing we learn should surprise us, the movie makes it looks all too easy to render terribly destructive results via simple texting. Or photo sharing. (Interestingly, Madison's Mom -- the movie's most dishonest character -- has a day job as real estate broker.)

@urFRENZ, from Brookwell MacNamara Entertainment, began its theatrical one-week run yesterday in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt.  A DVD and maybe streaming cannot be far behind, so if you can't get to L.A. to view it in a theater, stick this one on your see-it-later list.

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