Cyberbully coats issues in cheese

Our series on Montreal-shot films continues with much-maligned, after-school-special-esque TV movie Cyberbully.

Kelly Rowan and Emily Osment in Cyberbully

The film: Cyberbully (2011)

Does Montreal play itself? Nope. It’s unclear where exactly it’s supposed to take place, but there’s a whole lot of hoopla about the First Amendment, placing it well out of the jurisdiction of godless pinko Canada.

Notable local talent: Like most TV movies shot here, Cyberbully takes its leads from American TV and fills in the rest of the cast with local talent. Being Human’s Meaghan Rath is the most prominently featured local actress, but the real surprise here is behind the camera. The film is directed by Charles Binamé, the man behind some of the biggest box-office hits in Quebec history (The Rocket, Séraphin), apparently keeping busy in television after the disappointing showing of his expensive and underperforming Le piège américain.

Most egregious local landmark: Lakeside Academy in Lachine (also featured in The Trotsky) stands in for “Mountain High School,” but the film is otherwise seriously lacking in exteriors — one of the only locations that aren’t deep suburbia or the high school is Pinocchio, a diner in Laval. At least I can’t say they didn’t take their suburbia seriously.

TV movies don’t hold the power they once did. While the ’70s marked the heyday of hilariously alarmist after-school specials, they’ve become rather scarce now that any and all hot-button issue can be endlessly scrutinized online. The world doesn’t need its hottest teen TV stars telling you about dangerous sexually transmitted diseases, because you’ve already convinced yourself you have all of them (and gout!) thanks to WebMD. That’s what makes the ABC Family original Cyberbully such an anomaly; it’s the kind of square, instantly dated TV movie that died out around the same time irony became the driving cultural force.

Cyberbully created mild ripples in online communities when it was first released because it dared to use a hilariously square “fake Internet” at the center of its plot. There’s nothing the Internet hates more than being misrepresented by media, and the (admittedly cheeseball) film has been much maligned by various online communities: it’s not hard to understand why. Cyberbully has the unenviable task of making things that happen online seem vaguely dynamic onscreen, while also softening the blow of real-life cyberbullying enough to fit in comfortably on a family-friendly prime time slot. In the light of the severity of actions in recent cyberbullying cases, the heroine’s tribulations seem positively Victorian.

Taylor Hillridge (Emily Osment) is your average, run-of-the-mill teenage girl with teenage friends (Kay Panabaker and Meaghan Rath), an overprotective mom (Kelly Rowan) and a crush on a football player. When her mom decides she trusts her enough to get Taylor her own laptop for her birthday, Taylor makes a profile on Cliquesters (“better than Facebook… more raw, you know?” as her crush points out) and is suddenly embroiled in a knock-down, drag-out battle with the resident Mean Girl (Nastassia Markiewicz) and an unseemly reputation brought on by a fake status update posted by her brother (Robert Naylor).

Things get bad, and then they get worse: someone poses as a cute boy from a different school to get Taylor to open up, and suddenly her dirty laundry is aired all over the Internet. The boy she likes doesn’t like her anymore, people are calling her a prostitute all over the Internet and her friends are deserting her in order to emerge with their own social lives intact. Taylor eventually attempts suicide, only to be thwarted by the childproof cap, which sends her mother on a crusade to end cyberbullying once and for all, leading to a didactic third act that plays out like a government-scripted PSA.

Putting aside the histrionics and unintentional humour that runs throughout, Cyberbully nonetheless proves to have a fatal flaw from the get-go: the great majority of its plot points happen as someone is furiously clicking away at a computer screen, or passively staring at video playing on one. As our lives increasingly happen online, so do the stories we tell, and they just aren’t exciting in a visual medium. The words might cut the characters to the bone, but on screen they’re still just a bunch of misspelled nonsense that never manages to bridge the gap. By the time the conflict escalates to real life, the characters are playing out some sort of “Bullying Awareness Week” skit written by the librarian.

Despite being saddled with a script filled to the brim with trite, clunky gee-whizisms, the actors fare pretty well for themselves. It would be impossible to sell some of the film’s most ridiculous aspects in any movie, but the cast comes out mostly unscathed. In fact, the whole movie looks and moves better than you’d expect your average fear-mongering TV movie to, but that might well be because it’s an all-but-extinct species outside of the Lifetime Network.

It feels cheap to trivialize a problem as tangible as cyberbullying by taking a shit all over an earnest, albeit ham-fisted, movie like Cyberbully, but realism and digestible, family-friendly moralizing have never gone hand in hand. There’s nothing to be gained from diluting the problem for so-called mass consumption, except perhaps a handful of hilarious GIFs. There’s an important, harrowing, hard-hitting movie to be made about the topic; it certainly isn’t Cyberbully. ■

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