When will people learn that if a stranger asks you if you want to play a game, the answer should always be hell no…?
…Except almost all of us say yes, because we’re just a bunch of cats in human suits and curiosity is our killer. Unfortunately, the protagonist of director Anna Zaytseva’s debut feature, #Blue_Whale, ends up having to learn this the hard way through a game that pushes her to her darkest depths.
In the screen life thriller #Blue_Whale, written by Zaytseva, Evgenia Bogomyakova and Olga Klemesheva and having just premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival, Dana (Anna Potebnya) has lost her sister Yulya to an apparent suicide. But after discovering that Yulya has been participating in an online game where the ultimate goal is death, Dana decides to jump into the game herself, hoping it will lead her to more clues, instead uncovering a darkness she can’t control.
For those unaware, the Blue Whale Challenge was an actual phenomena originating in Russia, in which online groups would give participants tasks over a certain number of days, eventually culminating in their suicide. It’s a chilling thought to think that such a group would exist. It’s also devastating to think that there would be so many willing participants, which is the crux of #Blue_Whale: the pain of this generation.
Taking us back to before Yulya’s death, #Blue_Whale throws a whole lot at us right away, from frantic checking of messages to clicking on videos to scrolling files. Host, The Den, Unfriended…#Blue_Whale is like a kid hopped up on pixie sticks by comparison to those less frenzied screen-life examples, creating a vibe that replicates the real-world overload of day to day modern life. Through the chaos, we’re introduced to internet life for teens, cut out and exposed for the world to see: namely, the fact that nothing is secret, not even private pics. Zaytseva’s film makes a point to say that there is no such thing as privacy for these kids anymore, and for anyone like myself who suffers from depression or has been a victim of bullying, the very thought of that is a nightmare.
The Blue Whale Game is the horrific result of that emotional pain being channeled and harnessed as a weapon.
As Dana discovers more about the admins—in particular, Ada, who wears a creepy mask that looks like Bagul meets Sadako, the latter of which #Blue_Whale homages a few times—she meets fellow participants in the “game” and uncovers a world of lost teenagers, including Lesha (Timofey Eletskiy), who she forms an online romance with. For all of the film’s spastic approach and in your face, corny score—atypical to screen life movies—there is a grim tone lying just beneath the skin of the film like a festering rot. #Blue_Whale is an acknowledgement of a society that jumped into living a life online without any thought towards repercussions, with a serious message at the heart of it that isn’t nearly as upbeat as the presentation.
When I was a kid, every break-up, every bad day at school, felt like the end of the world. I can hardly imagine what it must be like to not be able to escape the pressure of life once you’re safe at home. #Blue_Whale enhances that idea in that there is no escape, and that that pressure can drive you to go against your better judgement.
Through a raw performance from Potebnya, we watch as Dana ignores the pleas of her best friend to not participate in the game, shuts herself off to her mother, who just wants her to take her head out of the screen for a minute, and acts erratically. We’re barely into the film before Dana is starting a fire outside someone’s apartment just to get inside for evidence. Full of grief and compelled by anger, #Blue_Whale documents how easy it is for life to overwhelm us in this every-terrible-thing-is-accessible world. As the game goes on, Dana is given tasks that range from drawing her emotions to posting videos of her cutting her own wrists and worse. It’s chilling to watch Dana slip further and further without even realizing the extent to which Ada and the other admins are manipulating her.
#Blue_Whale is a rollercoaster of emotions, but that doesn’t get in the way of the scares. Much of the screen time takes place on a busted laptop, which makes the screen look as if it’s bleeding rainbows, adding to the eeriness of the situation. Like the best screen-life films, #Blue_Whale builds tension by taking advantage of the method, giving Dana plenty of opportunities to witness live streams of loved ones being threatened. Though the film constantly gets in its own way with an abrasive style that practically screams in your face, Zaytseva delivers an intriguing mystery full of grotesque turns so awful in their implications that it feels like a snake squirming in your gut.
Never did I ever think that pictures of whales would unnerve me as bad as they did during this movie. Thank you, #Blue_Whale.
While it’s a largely uncomfortable experience in the best way, helping to lighten the load is Dana’s sweet relationship with Lesha. The chemistry between the two is exceptional, and Eletskiy brings a vulnerability that hammers home the importance of #Blue_Whale. A kid forced to grow up too young and take care of his sick mother, Lesha welcomes death, with Dana doing everything in her power to convince him his life is worth living. Because of the subject matter, this film is going to hit hard for many. Regardless of overall quality, it’s value cannot be denied. #Blue_Whale has a lot to say about mental health, and it (mostly) says it well.
Playing out like The Game meets The Den, #Blue-Whale is an exhilarating thrill-ride that exhibits enough patience in-between chills to take a meaningful bite out of a subject matter that needs to be discussed more openly. This film is a plea to our youth to keep going and not let the weight of an all-access world crush them, just as much as it’s a plea to the rest of us to pay attention to our family and friends and keep them from sinking out of reach. It’s far from perfect, but nothing and no one is. #Blue_Whale wants you to know that’s okay, and if it has to get your heart pumping for you to realize the value of your own life, well, even better.
By Matt Konopka