DO NOT REPLY (2020)

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Studio:      Gravitas Ventures
Director:    Daniel Woltosz, Walt Woltosz
Writer:      Daniel Woltosz, Walt Woltosz
Producer:  Daniel Woltosz, Walt Woltosz, Nicholas Paul Ybarra, Ivon Millan, Jae-Do Kwon
Stars:     Amanda Arcuri, Kerri Medders, Elise Luthman, Ashlee Fuss, Ivon Millan, Savannah Kennick, Thom Gossom Jr., Courtney Henggeler, Kaitlyn Black, Jackson Rathbone

Review Score:

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Summary:

Lured through a text message app, a teenage girl becomes captive to a delusional murderer obsessed with cheerleaders and virtual reality.


Synopsis:     

Review:

Picture ¡°Megan Is Missing¡± (review here) meets ¡°The Poughkeepsie Tapes¡± (review here) except not as ¡°found footage¡± and nowhere near as grimly realistic. In fact, you might consider ¡°Do Not Reply¡± to be the comparatively tamer made-for-cable alternative to the ¡°online predator¡± and ¡°homemade dungeon imprisonment¡± premises.

17-year-old Chelsea already feels like she¡¯s in the shadow of her popular older sister. She doesn¡¯t need her best friend Mia ignoring her too just because Mia has a new boyfriend.

¡°Do Not Reply¡± also doesn¡¯t need a visibly much older actress playing Chelsea¡¯s chum. It¡¯s one thing when an entire cast of supposed teenagers are played by performers in their twenties or even thirties. To have one and only one older actor try passing for 17 amongst others who actually do look like high-schoolers is a pitiably poor choice.

The thumb¡¯s redness worsens because this person, who also happens to not so coincidentally be one of the film¡¯s producers, features extensively throughout the first 15 minutes only to end up immaterial anyway. An indulgent first act seemingly exists solely for her supporting character showcase. Her friends even excitedly ask to watch an unknown underground movie that, also not so coincidentally, stars the same actress in real life.

I realize indie films double as platforms to do favors for industry friends in need of demo reel content. But this is the wrong role for her. Couldn¡¯t she be cast as the older sister instead? I¡¯m perplexed that anyone thought an audience could buy this person¡¯s forced baby voice and pink hairstreak as magic means of de-aging. She¡¯s not quite Steve Buscemi in ¡°30 Rock,¡± but nevertheless becomes a big distraction to taking the setup seriously.

The entire introduction of Mia, Chelsea¡¯s sister, Chelsea¡¯s mother, and more side players never seen again makes little sense because we don¡¯t need this much background to motivate Chelsea¡¯s interest in finding a beau of her own. She¡¯s a lonely teen girl hooked on her cellphone. That¡¯s enough to explain why she might fall victim to an anonymous online suitor giving her attention like no one else does. Which is exactly what happens when Chelsea e-meets Brad, a mysterious man who charms his way past Chelsea¡¯s common sense and eventually takes her captive.

¡°Do Not Reply¡± obviously intends to be a cautionary tale of sorts, although I¡¯m not sure how timely this exact message still is in 2020. Internet-enabled abductions will always be a problem, but we¡¯re far past the point of computers and social media being confusing frontiers of new technology. These prevalent dangers have been taught in schools and preached by parents for years now. Are girls one semester away from college really still meeting unknown people online, not getting full names to Google, buying excuses about broken cameras preventing pictures, sending sexy selfies anyway, not telling anyone about a secret rendezvous, and then drinking a strange drink without knowing where it came from? One or two of those things, maybe. But Chelsea triggers each of these traps. There¡¯s understandably na?ve and then there¡¯s unbelievably oblivious. The latter doesn¡¯t make for a savvy 21st-century heroine.

Plausibility picks up once Chelsea finds herself imprisoned alongside two more captive cheerleaders, although they¡¯ve been brainwashed into believing they love Brad. Deluded by an incestuous event in his past, Brad insists everyone assume the identity of someone named Sadie. Chelsea quickly learns the penalty for resisting Brad¡¯s rules, gradually grows compliant, yet holds on to some shred of optimism that she may manage to manufacture an escape.

Jackson Rathbone of ¡°Twilight¡± fame plays Brad, mostly by pursing his lips and furrowing his brow to seem simultaneously pissed and suspicious at all times. His character is those things, yet wearing that static face presents Brad as a one-dimensional boogeyman when he has intriguing aspects to play with such as OCD, hallucinations, and reality detachment. Rathbone¡¯s performance fares better in dialogue-driven scenes where he can go deeper into drama instead of emoting one expression, evening out into an overall effective, if simplistic villain.

Brad rapes all three girls over the course of the film, with a fourth assault implied via flashback. Thankfully, all of that violence occurs offscreen. I truly appreciate that ¡°Do Not Reply¡± recognizes there¡¯s no narrative need to graphically depict potentially problematic material.

However, surrounding scenes don¡¯t fully imply the terrifying brutality of sexual captivity. One of the girls claims Brad is sweet when they¡¯re together. ¡°It¡¯s not like that,¡± she insists when Chelsea tries to explain Brad is a monster. After an assault, another girl just walks out of the room clutching her shoes to her chest before crying for a few seconds. These are real reactions, but taking Brad out almost entirely and truncating what we see of the aftermath lessens the horror¡¯s impact. There¡¯s a way to convey the awfulness that still refrains from visual suggestions, but ¡°Do Not Reply¡± remains reserved to the point where it doesn¡¯t feel real.

A lot of that has to do with staging. ¡°Degrassi¡± alum Amanda Arcuri, Kerri Medders, and Elise Luthman quite capably pull their weight as the three women. Working with Rathbone, scenes where they interact create engaging dynamics and their performances click whenever the screenplay connects two or more together. Iffy production design actively counteracts them.

One weird element involves Brad¡¯s obsession with virtual reality, which he uses to record his violence and reprograms to reflect his imagination. For whatever reason, Brad¡¯s overcomplicated VR rig resembles Wolverine¡¯s headgear from Weapon X comics with a dozen GoPros and red Christmas lights on top. It¡¯s a goofy concept, at least how it¡¯s realized, and isn¡¯t even necessary as a conceit for conveying Brad¡¯s madness. The film could accomplish the same effect without wedging in a whackadoo prop that further fusses with disbelief suspension.

¡°Do Not Reply¡± clearly takes cues from the Ariel Castro kidnappings that shook Cleveland and the country in 2013. But ¡°Do Not Reply¡¯s¡± take too often feels phony. Interiors look like they were built on a stage, lending a dinner theater aesthetic that makes it difficult to feel any grounded fear from the film.

Considering some of the clumsiness with how the movie comes together, e.g. one girl¡¯s deep Stockholm Syndrome sees a serendipitous cure in five seconds, it¡¯s difficult to find a reason to recommend ¡°Do Not Reply.¡± Especially when other films, including the previously mentioned ¡°Megan Is Missing¡± and ¡°The Poughkeepsie Tapes,¡± have already presented this plot more successfully. Unless of course you want a relatively scrubbed, easier to stomach version of ¡°captive kidnapee trauma.¡± In which case, ¡°Do Not Reply¡± satisfies that option.

Review Score: 50