The Cyberbully: When Screenlife Meets Docudrama Thriller
Before her role as Arya Stark in “Game of Thrones,” Maisie Williams starred in a screenlife project called “The Cyberbully.” The Hitchcockian film, directed by Ben Chanan and co-written with David Lobatto, is a striking example of screenlife being used for a thriller with a message, with one actor, Williams being seen throughout.
Released in 2015, “Cyberbully” takes place in one bedroom and in one night, focused on the interactions of Casey (Williams). It starts innocent enough: Casey video chats with her friend Megan, and the two are joined by their hacker friend Alex. Alex creates an opportunity for Casey to hack one of her classmates that she does not like, a gross boy who she thinks could stand to be embarrassed. But after she posts a tweet under the boy’s account that’s meant to embarrass him, the act brings a karmic force into her life, a hacker who knows Casey’s own history of bullying, and humiliating one girl in particular.
“Cyberbully” takes on the form of a thriller as it shows Casey interacting with this strange chat window, who does not identify themselves, as they blackmail her and see what she’d do to protect herself. Their conversations happen over chat, with the text read aloud as if to be a voice in the room. The presence is increasingly claustrophobic, especially as the faceless hacker starts to infiltrate her online presence, while controlling the social media accounts of herself and her friends. The hacker claims to “help victims of cyberbullying,” which comes with humiliating people like Casey who have a past of trolling classmates and starting mean-spirited jokes against those who don’t deserve them.
Coming out a year after “Unfriended,” “Cyberbully” takes on some of the similar themes, cautioning against the vulnerability of the internet, where any account can be hacked. And like “Unfriended” it has a kind of exaggerated take on technology, in which anything can happen as a type of retribution for bullying. “Cyberbully” comes with a message but also a warning, and it makes the story all that more immediate.
The centerpiece to this project is the performance from Williams, who takes viewers through a whole range of emotions. It becomes an opportunity to show how she can carry a project on her own, creating a natural anxiety out of her situation while also showing the complicated sides of her. Like Tom Hardy’s performance in “Locke” (in which the actor was in a car the entire time, talking to different people), Williams reacts to the chat logs in front of her with precision, and a natural sense.
“The Cyberbully” is a strong hybrid of screenlife filmmaking and regular visual composition, while creating its own horrific reality. As Casey talks to the people on her screen, and then to the mystery person, the film shows what is on her screen. But the camera also offers an angle of her face, peering over the front of her laptop to show her reacting to it. It allows the performance to be shown off without a video chat from the other side, as with other screenlife movies. All the while, the camera stays focused in the room, sometimes using overhead shots of her bedroom, but never leaving the space.
A lean experiment with the screenlife form, “The Cyberbully” is testament to how performance is a crucial part of the filmmaking aspect, but also in how it can tell very human stories in the process. Williams is a great fit for the project not just because she’s believable as a regular teenager who decided to put someone else down, but because she can show the complicated humanity of that person, all while reacting to a screen.