Based on a play by Enda Walsh, Chatroom, like so many of the titles in this year's Cannes selection, could have been ripped from the darkest of today's headlines. A bleak thriller for the 90210 crowd, it's the tale of a group of teens whose awkwardness in everyday social interaction drives them online where they meet up to talk about life and death. For two of the group, there are dark ulterior motives, though, and as they begin to identify the more vulnerable members of their posse, tragedy seems sure to strike.
In broad stylistic strokes we're introduced to these characters in both the real world – a grungy, dark and desaturated vision of the Camden area of London – and the online world – a hyper-stylized corridor space with brightly-colored chatrooms leading off. Offline they're quiet, shy, and introverted. Online they're boisterous, confident and cocksure.
For the first ten or twenty minutes we're shown the pointed differences between the two, and hit over the head with the separation. The film goes out of its way to make sure we're well aware that the live action characters we see in the online space aren't the characters themselves but their online equivalents.
We get it, though, right away. And that's pretty much why the film stumbles to its conclusion – it never gives its audience enough credit. That's as true of the script and production design as it is the performances. Of course they're all young performers, but they've all done better work elsewhere. This is particularly true of this film's lead and antagonist, Aaron Johnson, who was able to find a duality between the awkwardness of being a teenage dork and the confidence of his superhero alter-ego – for that's all his online character here is - much better in Kick-Ass.
Strange subplots involving the more minor characters – one's struggle with a inappropriately-young crush and another's desire to rebel against her parents – don't help matters. Little moments, like a string of sex rooms (including, in one, a cameo from director Nakata) and a room invasion by a pedophile masquerading as a young girl, work as individual vignettes, but as a sum indicate that this is a film about a teen's experience of the internet by people who never experienced the internet as teens. Like the broadly-drawn enemy parents of the characters, they 'just don't get it.'
While headlines about teenagers driven to suicide by online friends, not through bullying but through friendly prompting, are absolutely terrifying, Chatroom's heavy-handed attempt to stylize its world both on and offline rings false and wastes the premise. There are too many moments of clear fantasy – cringe-worthy misreadings of what the web represents. And then a frenetic finale set offline, around Camden Lock, feels like it's straight out of a John Woo movie and doesn't seem to have a place here, even in the fantastical confines of the online space.
Nakata has suffered from being lost in translation before, and has gone on the record about his disappointment with the Hollywood experience. Working in the English language again here, this time for an independent British production, it's clear his skill set probably works better on home turf. Disappointing, given the solid premise, it's ultimately just tough to connect to this Chatroom.