Despite a great cinematic tradition of films that ground themselves in the terror of the digital, the result here is neither scary nor incisive.

For much of The Friendship Game, a film that dances between more conventional horror and something resembling science fiction, there was a sense of déjà vu in how similar it felt to the 2017 film Wish Upon. This is not a flattering comparison as it extends beyond their shared narrative device of a mysterious object that can grant the wishes of those who possess it to how each plays everything so straight even as the story gets increasingly silly. The Friendship Game is much better than that, much of this due to some occasionally enrapturing visuals that feel more adventurous, though it still gets caught up spinning its wheels and sporadically gesturing at something more substantial that it is never able to piece together.

It all begins rather creakily with four friends Zooza (Peyton List), Rob (Brendan Meyer), Courtney (Kelcey Mawema), and Cotton (Kaitlyn Santa Juana) who are all at a turning point in their lives as they get ready to head to college. One day, Zooza and Cotton discover a mysterious object at a yard sale that looks like it could have been plucked straight out of the Hellraiser films. They are informed in a cartoonishly ominous fashion by the woman selling it that it is a game to test their friendship by granting their deepest desires. Nonplussed, the duo takes the object and decides to give it a whirl. Wouldn’t you believe it, there is an unexpected cost to their respective wishes that begins to consume their lives and any hopes for the future that they had for themselves. Also operating in the background of this is Kyle (Dylan Schombing) who spends most of his time at his computer where he is observing the four friends without their knowledge. It is the beginning of the film’s interest in a digital space that becomes intertwined with the physical. This is seen through various visuals that seem to glitch and become warped even when characters are observing them with their own eyes.

Image via RJE Films

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Initially, the film feels almost reminiscent of this year’s absolutely stunning We’re All Going to the World’s Fair from writer-director Jane Schoenbrun. That was a work of profound existential reflection crossed with a more emotional horror that captured both the loneliness and liberation of the Internet unlike any other film has to date. Some of these same questions are clearly on the mind of The Friendship Game. What becomes disappointing is that it all lacks the more sharp sense of introspection and patience that Schoenbrun was able to create with such precision. Instead, it dresses everything up with far more conventional attempts at scares that both don’t land and end up cheapening the experience. Split into chapters of sorts, it follows each character as we see the outcome of the “game” from their perspective and get some sense of what informed their wish. Sprinkled through each of these are seemingly significant scenes that end up just coming and going without leaving much of an impact on the overall arc of the story. Much of this centers around a party we see from each of the different perspectives that aren’t all that distinct from each other.

Some of this creates a potentially interesting intersection between all of them as we see how each character is more troubled than they will ever open up to the other about, but it becomes repetitive to the point of frustrating when there isn’t any greater direction to it. That is before we take a dive into a narrative element that gives everything a science fiction inflection. What exactly this element is, which won’t be spoiled here, often clashes with many of the character beats as it calls into question whether we can actually trust what it was we were observing. Unreliable perspectives can often be fun to play around with, but The Friendship Game remains so hellbent on running with this element so thoroughly that development begins to feel random and without any greater purpose. This may work to its advantage if it were to take a bold leap into being unrestrained by its self-imposed narrative conventions.

Image via RJE Films

While there are moments where it feels like we are getting close to that edge, it will always pull us back into more safe territory that undercuts its own thematic ambitions. This is felt most in particular lines of dialogue that convey exposition and move the plot along in a painfully unnatural fashion. One conversation that Zooza shares with a family member that provides background to her fear of being abandoned is forced to the point of being funny as dialogue tumbles out with a complete lack of subtlety. When she responds with what sounds like the phrase “” it takes you even further out of it. Such lines make the characters feel less like fully-developed people on the cusp of adulthood and more like stock versions of snotty teenagers seen in countless other films. It all just goes through the motions, never scratching below the surface of who these people are or the fears that are taking hold of them.

Not helping matters is how the conclusion plays out largely in the confines of a single home that begins to feel mighty small in both a narrative and thematic sense. The structure of it all feels scattered with scenes getting stacked on top of each other in an odd manner. The characters themselves are made aimless as one can’t help wondering what they are doing there any longer. While much of this is clearly intended to establish how some of this may not be happening quite in the way we think it is, the way it is conveyed is convoluted not just in its construction but in its closing meaning. It throws a lot at the screen, from surprise revelations to violent outbursts, though very little ends up sticking. There is a cacophony of sound and color which provides some spark to it all. It just is burdened by unshakably tiresome plotting that is made all the more meaningless when it decides to walk back much of what already felt far too small in its creative and emotional scope. Whatever was trying to be said about what it is to be a young person lost in a digital sea of social interaction has been done with far more command and conviction in superior cinematic work elsewhere.

Rating: C-

The Friendship game is in theaters and on VOD now.

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