Social media and smart phones were bad ideas from the start. Sure they offer ways for people to stay in touch and be informed, but as with everything in life outside of Mister Rogers there’s a dark side to them that constantly threatens to swallow us all. Young people are an especially dangerous mix with these technological advances as they’re both the most savvy and naive. Do Not Reply offers a glimpse into the dangers of it all, but while the intent is noble and it manages some thrills, the film ultimately speaks more to the foolishness of youth and the fetishization of perversion.
Chelsea (Amanda Arcuri) is a high-schooler who can’t help but feel lesser than her peers. Her sister is a popular cheerleader, her best friend already has a boyfriend, and Chelsea can’t claim anything remotely close to either. She finds a boy named Brad (Jackson Rathbone) in a similar position, though, who she “meets” through social media. They hit it off, she shares some pics of her in her sister’s cheerleader outfit, and they arrange to meet at a Halloween costume party… at which point he drugs her, takes her back to his suburban lair, and forces her to role play as his sexy sister Sadie. And she’s not the only one.
Writers/directors Daniel & Walter Woltosz open Do Not Reply with their best foot forward as Chelsea’s life and frustrations feel real, and her easy slip into the grip of a psychopath is equally believable. The location where she awakens is equally tangible with its gaudy suburban interior sealed off from the outside world through locks, boarded windows, and strict rules. It starts to crumble, though, as their captor’s routine grows tiresome and Chelsea neglects to even attempt resistance. Oh, and that wig… that hideous blond wig doesn’t help either.
Her arrival is quickly followed by an introduction to two other girls already in Brad’s custody. They fill her in on the rules — they all answer to Sadie, their real names are not to be spoken, they have to wear their cheerleader outfits outside of their rooms, etc. They also need to be blonde, and this is where the film hits its first real snag that unfortunately carries through to the end. Chelsea’s a brunette, so one of the girls dyes her hair blond. Except she doesn’t actually for whatever reason, and instead Arcuri is saddled with a pretty terrible wig for the bulk of the movie that stands out in every scene. It’s bad news and an unavoidable distraction that makes it difficult to take everything that follows as seriously as the film wants you to.
It’s a shame as Arcuri’s performance is quite good. She convinces in her loneliness and despair, and as Chelsea begins formulating a plan later in the film you can see the focus and determination wear across her face. That plan comes so late, though, after numerous opportunities — not for escape, necessarily, but for some kind of attempt or effort — and that lack of action drags the film’s middle into some dull territory. We don’t buy Brad as a true threat due as much to the performance (sorry Rathbone!) as the character, and his frequent onset of headaches chased by dramatic flashbacks don’t help.
The script also devotes time to Brad’s experiments with virtual reality — except not as he’s actually just making first-person POV recordings of cheerleading routines and murder. It’s an odd degree of effort spent on an angle that ultimately goes nowhere fast. It’s par for the course, though, as his entire methodology seems muddled regarding his sexual attraction to these girls and what he actually does with them.
Do Not Reply is held back by its steady inaction, and when it finally comes time to move the balance between character bravery and stupidity is constantly wobbling. Still, the ending works as it makes an unlikely choice survivor-wise and takes a moment to deliver a PSA. Whether any adults or teens will listen is another story.
Do Not Reply screened at San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival 2019.