After the commercial success of Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy the thinking girl’s heartthrob Aaron Johnson makes a quirky side-step by appearing in the UK Film Council’s latest, and probably pretty much their last, feature film: Chatroom. Directed by the creator of the original Japanese Ring films, Hideo Nakata, the picture caused quite a stir at Cannes earlier in the year with critics hailing it as a disturbing and thought-provoking new thriller. Johnson plays a suicide-obsessed, manipulative teen, William, who sets up a chatroom for his own cruel and evil ends. His room is swiftly populated by a random selection of London’s most lonely, apathetic and off-beat charicatures whose lives are systematically sabotaged.
Like a great many films sponsored by the UK Film Council the acting in this film is, at times, a little bit self-conscious but that is really where my criticism of this film ends. Chatroom is the first internet-based, mainstream film to solve the problem of relaying on-screen communication in a visually stimulating fashion. Usually when a character in a film is on a computer we simply see them sitting at their computer desk tapping away. Riveting. In Chatroom, however, the chatroom experience was portrayed as people physically sitting in a room together as though they were actually meeting in person. The characters only responded to what was said rather than to facial expressions, body language or physical behaviour to remind the viewer that only certain parts of each character, the parts of themselves they wanted to share, were apparent to the rest of the group.
The best performance of the film came, without a doubt, from young hopeful Matthew Beard who plays William’s primary target. His struggle with suicidal thoughts is gripping and authentic and has the audience truly fearful of what Johnson’s character might do next. Johnson himself demonstrates a competent versatility and makes a seamless move from the good-hearted Kick-Ass to the dark-hearted William. Plus, he’s sporting unfortunate facial hair so it’s clear from the outset that he’s the baddie. Imogen Poots is perfect as the alienated waif exhiliarated by William’s dark streak and Skins actress Hannah Murray does her best to step up to the heavy-weight acting of feature films with some success.
If I’m honest watching Chatroom didn’t change my life, but it did get me thinking about our modern-day relationship with the internet. Firstly, at least for some of the characters, there is a difference between the way the characters appear in the chatroom (i.e. they’re better-groomed) and how they appear in reality. This, of course, highlights how online profiles have become extensions and exagerations of our personalities that we can tailor for our own ends. A major question raised by this film, however, is whether we are actually extending ourselves or escaping ourselves. Afterall, in the anonymous online environment we can be whoever we want to be without argument from anyone.
Secondly with its collection of alienated teens the film highlights how the online forum offers us something that is often lacking in our reality: recognition and love or at the very least simulations of it. We all want to be seen; we all want to be loved and as we are able to tailor our personality more readily in an online setting to what we deem will be acceptable it can often feel as though strangers are better at giving us that love and acknowledgement than people already populating our lives.
The underlying message of this film appears to be that chatrooms tend to attract people who are missing something from their lives making them thus more easily manipulated. I’m not sure I agree entirely but, I suppose, if people were truly fulfilled by what was happening in their lives then they wouldn’t be looking elsewhere for emotional sustenance. Considering most people have an iPhone permenantly attached to their hand these days this is a rather worrying thought.
Chatroom is released in UK cinemas 24th December.
Director: Hideo Nakata
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Imogen Poots, Matthew Beard, Hannah Murray, Daniel Kaluuya
Runtime: 97 min