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Thursday, May 2, 2013

"This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but a tweet..."

Your Friends Close (2012)
Directed by Jocelyn Kelvin
Written by Brock Wilbur
Starring Jocelyn Kelvin, Brock Wilbur, Kovar McClure, Heather Wood, Laura Nicole Harrison, Blake Silver, Rob Ondarza, Ricky House, Michael Eliopolous, Lisa Renee Foiles, Ramsay Robinson and Yahtzee Croshaw [as well as many others]

[Disclaimer: I know Brock, Jocelyn and some of the other cast members from college. I also read an early draft of the script and served as an extra in a scene or two. That being said, I do not profit from this film, except the sense of pride someone gets from knowing about an awesome thing before other people and knowing the people involved in it]

Video game movies are pretty common at this point. Good video game movies are very very rare. Even rarer are movies that eschew adapting a video game to focusing on the people that make and play video games. Your Friends Close is not Super Mario Brothers or House of the Dead or Tomb Raider. It's not even Tron. It's more like The Bad and the Beautiful or Contempt. It's about awful, backstabbing people who somehow create something, for better or worse. As always, the question is whether that something is worth it.

Becca (Jocelyn Kelvin) and Jason (Brock Wilbur) are two up-and-coming game designers who happen to be married. They've just created a revolutionary new video game called "Your Friends Close" that basically turns the Turing Test into a multi-player strategy game. Users are put into a chatroom and must discover who is a real person and who is a computer. The winner could win anything from a rain forest named for them to a night with a porn star, depending on who the sponsor of the competition is.

Thing is, the game still needs to be developed and tested and Becca and Jason are about to fly to France to work on it. They're throwing a going away party the night before they leave, and they've invited their  best friends (a mix of family, friends, professional rivals, exes, current lovers and colleagues).

And the normal tension, regret and bitterness that crop up at any party are exacerbated by the fact that, just after the party starts, Randall Sconce (Michael Eliopolous), owner of the video game company developing YFC, wants Jason to stay in San Francisco to develop a tie-in TV show for YFC. Which means there's now a slot open for someone to fly to Paris with Becca and develop the game. It's the chance of a life-time, and Jason announces that the attendees are contestants who must convince him to give them the job.

Needless to say, this night will prove to be the end of relationships, maybe even Becca and Jason's.

The first thing to note is that Your Friends Close really understands that what makes a movie (or any story) interesting are interesting and complex characters. The script balances exposition and video game theory with the establishing of relationships and characterization while never breaking a sweat. This movie is extraordinarily quotable (there's a joke about Miles Davis and Secret of Monkey Island that cracks me up each time I think of it), but all the cleverness is in service of the characters and the story. The characters are mostly overly-intellectual nerds who delight in showing off their knowledge and their verbiage, and as the night drags on, it becomes apparent that even they cannot fend off disappointment, fear and despair with clever quips.

The direction by Jocelyn Kelvin (aided by DP Chad Nagel) is lively and restless, following the party from one corner of the house to another in extended Steadicam shots that impart a video game quality to the action. However, Kelvin knows when to pause on a moment, allowing us a tension-filled long take worthy of Rohmer when the story calls for it. Two long conversations between Becca and Kaylee (Jenni Melear), Jason's assistant and possibly his lover, unwind slowly and hypnotically, teasing us with violent resolution of the rivalry at any moment.

Of course, all of the technical skill would be for naught if the actors in front of the camera weren't equally skilled. Brock and Jocelyn each prove a match for their parts, with Brock slowly drawing out the childishness and fear underlying his manipulative ways and Jocelyn possessing a enigmatic and intelligent quality that reminds me of Lena Headey or Anna Karina. The rest of the cast is just as talented, with Blake Silver drawing out the nuances of a beta male trying to will himself into alpha male status, and Heather Anne Wood, as Jason's sister, slowly stripping away the disguise of a good girl with a secret life.  Finally, Yahtzee Croshaw deserves special notice for his voice acting on the titular video game, crafting a mix of charm and malevolence that is utterly entertaining and chilling.

At one point in the movie, Jason talks about how big a jump movies made between the 1920s and the 1930s, from chase scenes and pie fights to meaning and romance, before saying that video games are about to make a similar jump. I can't speak to video games, but I can say that Your Friends Close shows that movies can still develop and advance even in the video game age.