Chatroom is a film with an idea and a unique vision of how to bring that idea across to an audience. Essentially, half of the film takes place in cyberspace, in a chatroom for teens living in Chelsea, but instead of showing us teenagers typing away on keyboards for half of the film, we see them inhabit real rooms. This permits the actors to do more acting than staring at a screen and mashing down the keys, and it gives the audience a great deal more variety. It also makes the chatrooms feel more like a real place, and thus making their potential for manipulation more poignant.
There are five teenagers who enter this chatroom. Each of them has problems which the film uses to define their characters. William (Aaron Johnson) has been in therapy, hates his family, and used to be suicidal. Eva (Imogen Poots) is an aspiring model with confidence issues. Jim (Matthew Beard) suffers from depression and has been on anti-depressants for years, which stems from a traumatic weekend he had as a child. Mo (Daniel Kaluuya) is a pedophile and has strong desires for his best mate’s sister. And Emily (Hanah Murray) feels as if her parents don’t love her.
They take solace in the anonymity of the online life. This chatroom in particular is a place where they can vent, talk, and be themselves. However, one of them, William, quickly becomes more of a villain than a friend, and much of the film follows his attempts to manipulate the group — and in particular, Jim — into doing things that don’t typically benefit people. Things like career manipulation, random acts of violence, and suicide.
If Chatroom didn’t also feature scenes set in the real world, one might suspect William to be a much older person than Aaron Johnson, and he would be more of a typical internet predator. Having him as a normal teenager, and there’s no doubt about his age, might make him even scarier. The idea that, yes, it is that easy for unsuspecting victims to be manipulated online is an inherently creepy one. You hear about it on the news more times than you would like to. The film functions somewhat as a cautionary tale.
What it doesn’t do is work as a successful drama or thriller. The characters are all too underdeveloped and underwritten for any attempts at drama to be successful. You’re not going to care much for any of these people, and their problems all seem superficial. Even Jim, who delivers this length monologue about why he’s so upset, doesn’t come across as sincere. Part of the reason for this, I think, is because of the setting of lots of the film, the chatroom.
Despite what a significant amount of people will say, people do not act or talk the same way online as they do in real life. The “ums” are eliminated, for one. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? Each word can be more perfectly crafted and selected. Sentiments that might burst out of spontaneity are cut back on, because the delete button exists and you have to hit the Enter key before sharing with the world. As a result, the scenes taking place in the chatroom, dramatized by the actors or not, can’t feel real.
The dramatization does make their presence feel like it’s actually happening, but the dialogue comes across as fake and overly calculated — not like teens talk — and it makes the characters the same way. This could have been rectified by the real life scenes bringing out the depth, but they do little more than emphasize a particular issue in each character’s life. These are people built on a problem, not already defined ones who have a problem thrown on them. There’s a difference.
The scenes taking place in the chatrooms — there are many, even if the “main” one is hosted by William — are more highly stylized, and the sets are interesting if not necessarily unique. The whole internet is represented by an endless hallway, while each chatroom is presented as a room at the side of the hall. They’re all small rooms which have some unique decorations (although the same wallpaper). They’ll keep your eyes busy the first time, but without any change, they’ll get stale by the end of Chatroom‘s 90 minutes.
One also has to wonder exactly why a chatroom was the focus of the film. This is a 2010 release. Who still uses chatrooms? The way the film portrays it, all teenagers living in Chelsea do. Facebook has been around for a half-decade; Myspace has been a popular website for even longer. Chatrooms? Have they been popular since the turn of the century? Maybe this film would have been more impactful had it come out a decade and a half earlier. It feels outdated as a 2010 release, even if the message is still sound.
The hope of Chatroom is that a novel take on an interesting idea would be enough to distract us from a complete lack of drama or thrills. It’s not. The primarily online setting doesn’t allow for deep characters, the offline scenes don’t compensate for this, and the chatroom idea would have been more appropriate 15 years earlier. While the message is sound and there are some visual flourishes almost worth seeing, I can’t recommend that you see Chatroom.