I’m not entirely sure why Channel 4 billed Cyberbully as a factual programme. Presumably it’s because everything that unfolds is in some way based on the real-life experiences of victims of online abuse. The only problem with that is, aside from the depiction of teenagers’ online habits – which is surprisingly on point, nothing about this feature-length “event film” feels realistic. Its interpretation of cyberbullying takes the form of heavy-handed moral allegory and the plot is crucially short of insightful revelations.
It’s in no way a lost cause, however, provided you view Cyberbully not as the hard-hitting moral fable the makers intended, but as a disturbing paranoia-thriller that takes the bleak fate-of-technology musings of Black Mirror and infuses them with the spine-chilling thrills and creepy twists of a horror movie to create an intense 80-minutes of brilliant, unsettling drama.
Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams is Casey, a typical teenager who, like most of the ‘yoof’ today, spends most of her life online. Hauled up in her bedroom for the show’s entire duration, Casey fills her time impulsively hacking her ex’s Twitter account and mocking fashion bloggers with a string of derisory tweets and videos posted under an alias to protect her anonymity. But as countless recent news stories have made us all too aware, anonymity is a fleeting concept in the grim and savage world of the internet and Casey quickly comes to regret her transgressions when her online identity comes under attack from a faceless suicide troll.
Williams is perfectly cast as Casey, effortlessly holding our attention in a virtually solo performance and showcasing impressive range with a character that is by turns impatient, strong-willed, pithy, vulnerable and just about everything you’d expect a 17-year-old girl to be. It of course helps that her role is superbly written, director and writer Ben Chanan cleverly avoiding painting Casey as entirely innocent.
Instead, Williams walks a slippery tight-rope between victim and perpetrator, first provoking our sympathies when her anxiety disorder is cruelly exposed by a jilted ex and then enraging us with the revelation that her nasty mocking of a fellow pupil who likes to post karaoke videos online has sparked a vicious and relentless campaign of abuse that ends with the poor wannabe-popstar taking her own life.
This story beat is as close as Cyberbully gets to offering troubling insight into the world of online abuse, Casey’s shameful act laying bare how a seemingly meaningless message typed from behind the safety of a computer screen can spiral out of control with dark, twisted consequences. Otherwise, this film doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know about the mindset of bullies. Apparently they prey on the isolated and vulnerable to mask their own insecurities and are really just scared of being alone. Who knew?
It’s the same story with the film’s conclusion, which piles on a thick layer of preachy moral philosophising with the hackneyed notion that an abuser is powerless if you refuse to give him attention – a message that fails to address the way social media intrudes on every aspect of our lives. How do you walk away when your online history follows you everywhere?
The makers of Cyberbully may not encourage us to take a closer look at the monster within and reconsider our online habits as intended, but they have nevertheless crafted a sickeningly tense, frightening and smartly original techno-thriller that will at the very least convince viewers to keep a wary eye trained on their webcams. You never know who might be watching, after all.
Click here to watch Cyberbully on 4oD