Face 2 Face is an 88-minute indie film shot entirely from the perspective of a computer screen and/or phone app chat between two high school teens. Some will find it creative and compelling—it did, after all, win an award for innovation at the 2016 Edmonton International Film Festival—while it will strike others as gimmicky.
I fall into the latter camp. I was reminded of a Modern Family episode shot totally from a computer screen, but I also flashed back to an old M*A*S*H episode that was filmed from the perspective of a wounded soldier who was never shown on-camera. Both episodes seemed clever enough, but also something of a creative exercise, something that could be done only once. In other words, a gimmick. And to be truthful, 22-minutes seemed long enough for such an experiment.
Length, however, isn’t the weight that drags down this first feature-length film from director Matthew Toronto. It’s the nagging question of audience, as well as two “secrets” the teens have that aren’t terribly hard to guess pretty early into the film—which, of course, subverts any attempt to create or sustain narrative tension.
This “digital coming-of-age story”, as the liner notes tag it, features two teens on “opposite ends of the popularity spectrum.” We first meet Teel (Daniel Amerman), an awkward lad who clearly spends way too much time in his room, as he tries to engage someone online. For a reason we’re told much later in the film, he has chosen to find and reconnect with a childhood friend (Daniela Bobadilla, Anger Management).
“Are you Madison Daniels from Clinton Elementary School?”
“Who is this?”
“Do I know you?”
“We used to play together in your backyard treehouse…”
“I totally remember.”
First impressions matter and our first impression of Madison is that she’s a gregarious partying teen who’s about as free-spirited as can be. Teel, meanwhile, is so introverted that we wonder if he has any friends outside of video gamers. So would a popular girl going to a party that night later dial up her newly rediscovered childhood unpopular friend in order to “take him to the party”? Would she instantly start talking to him about a boy she liked and invite him to watch her get another guy’s attention by kissing a third guy? And would his reaction be to go into the bathroom afterward and vomit?
I had a hard time believing any of it, and so did my teenage daughter, who found it eye-rolling as well that Madison made it her mission to get Teel to create a Facebook page and help him collect 150 friends. We live near Peoria, where show-biz cliché has it that if something plays there it will play anywhere, and here in the Midwest teens aren’t using Facebook to communicate with each other. They’re using Snapchat and Instagram and other platforms that haven’t been “invaded” yet by their parents.
In other words, my daughter didn’t buy the gimmick either, which raises one big question: Who is the film’s intended audience? It’s shot totally from the two teens’ perspective, with adults only peripherally in the background. But if adults are watching and thinking that they’re getting a glimpse into what it’s like to grow up in the digital age, it might not necessarily be the case if what we’re seeing isn’t resonating with teens.
One scene in particular just didn’t ring true. “Let me help you put on your makeup,” Teel tells Madison, volunteering to help her prep for her big meet-up with the current guy of her dreams. He’s been watching his mother put on makeup since he was a little kid, he explains, which is kind of like saying he can deliver a calf because he’s a fan of nature shows. The scene plays out in a way that seems as cutesy and contrived as the Romeo and Juliet audition scene he later tries out on her, but it’s also a little leering and creepy.
In the just-plain-strange department, Madison’s father is a retiring principal, but somehow it has fallen to his teenage daughter to plan the school’s retirement party—
another logic-related complaint. However, when it comes to sheer artifice, Toronto shows a defter hand.
The director finds ways to mix it up so that we get extended scenes apart from two teens poised in front of their computer screens, and those scenes are well handled. While I’m not so sure it’s believable that a guy would hang on to his phone throughout some serious action or that a girl would insist that her friend turn voyeur—both instances seem like artificial devices for exploring character on screen rather than a natural extension of character or situation—they do effectively mitigate any boredom that might come as a byproduct of spending too much big-screen time with nothing but onscreen banter or teen angst. Toronto handles pacing nicely in this well-constructed film, and also shows his literary chops as he begins and ends the film with a classic image/motif to pull everything into focus.
Though the screenplay, co-written by Toronto and brother Aaron, calls for Maddie to be just a little too “mad” to the point of being clichéd, both actors ultimately make you believe their characters, even if the situations can sometimes seem artificial. As one writer noted in his review of films from the Edmonton festival, “the gimmick seems contrived but the story draws the viewer in as Teel and Madison rekindle a childhood friendship and begin to reveal dark secrets about themselves. Much is left to the imagination; heightening the intrigue.” I’d argue that the specter of voyeurism and the mesmerizingly powerful draw of online chatting itself stokes our interest, but the characters and performances do make the time we spend with them more pleasant than might have been with lesser talents. The same might be said of Toronto. Though Face 2 Face can’t break free of its contrivances, viewers still somehow find themselves unable to turn away.