Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sexting in Suburbia (Moody Independent/Mar Vista Entertainment, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Sexting in Suburbia — which may have had a theatrical release, or at least originally been slated for one, since the page on it has a poster with the alternate title Shattered Silence and lists an MPAA rating (PG-13, “for mature thematic material including a disturbing image, some language and sexual content”), though I watched it in what was billed as a “world premiere” on the Lifetime channel — apparently takes its inspiration from a real-life case in 2008, in which Ohio high school student Jessica “Jesse” Logan killed herself after months of being bullied following the mass Internet posting of a nude photo of herself she had e-mailed to her boyfriend, who had cross-posted it and sent it “viral” out of revenge after they broke up. In the movie, directed and edited by John Stimpson (the unusual spelling appears on his on-screen credit as well as from a script he co-wrote with Marcy Holland, the put-upon girl is Dina Van Cleve (Jenn Proske; her page doesn’t reveal her birthdate but she looks about a decade too old to be playing a high-school student), star of the girls’ field hockey team at Westfield High School (when I saw the name I reflected on the mysterious “Westfield Shoppingtown” company that quietly bought all the major malls in San Diego County and wondered if they had set this up as a charter school!) and an “A” student in line for a college scholarship who was also elected homecoming queen.

Only at the homecoming after-party her boyfriend, Mark Carey (Ryan Kelley), tries to get her to have sex with him, but she’s still being a virtuous little girl and refuses. Indeed, she bails on the party and comes home to her mom Rachel (Liz Vassey, top-billed) well ahead of schedule, but once she’s home she goes into her room, undresses and sends Mark a weird sort of consolation prize, a nude photo of herself which she takes with the camera on her cell phone. Meanwhile Mark, put off by a girl who wouldn’t put out for him, finds one at the party who will: Skylar Reid (Kelly Goss), blonde sex bomb and Dina’s principal rival for the college scholarship and stardom on the field hockey team. Mark and Skylar become an “item” and Dina’s naked picture appears on cell phones throughout the school — posted by Dina’s friend Claire Stevens (Rachel Parsons) after Skylar intimidates her into it by telling her Dina’s actions risk getting the field hockey team disqualified from championship play. Dina’s new-found notoriety gets her the full-tilt bullying treatment, from graffiti all over Westfield High calling her “whore” and “slut” to being openly shunned by just about everybody in school — someone even dumps a large supply of condoms in her locker, and she opens it and they come spilling out Mark happens to be passing by and offers to help her pick them up, to which she replies, “Haven’t you hurt me enough already?” Eventually the pressure gets to be too much for her and she hangs herself in her bedroom.

The movie doesn’t take a linear approach to the material: it begins with mom Rachel showing a house to a couple who are thinking of buying it (like her own house, it has a leaky kitchen faucet), and she’s so late that by the time she gets home her daughter has already killed herself — and just in case we were encouraged by the ambiguity of the opening scene to hold open the possibility that mom had arrived home in time to rescue her daughter and cut her down from her D.I.Y. noose in time to save her life, we next see a wake at school in which Dina is awarded a posthumous letter in field hockey. The film cuts back and forth throughout its running time between Dina’s worsening situation — the last straw is her being fired from the team and losing her college scholarship — and scenes taking place after Dina’s death, in which Rachel enrages the rest of the town by going after Dina’s killers, specifically by investigating who distributed the photo over the Internet and then trying to get the police to prosecute them on child pornography charges (since Dina was still only 17 when the photo was taken). The opening parts of Sexting in Suburbia alternate between the deliberately depressing and the just plain silly, but once the basis outlines of the story are established it becomes surprisingly chilling and gripping drama, as the same mysterious people who bullied Dina and pressured her to kill herself now turn against Rachel. She gets multiple copies of a death threat, one of those criminal missives with letters clipped from magazine headlines and pasted on a fresh piece of paper to form a message, and the next time she goes to her daughter’s grave she finds the tombstone vandalized with “Dina — Slut” and the posthumous athletic letter set fire to and burned.

Through part of the movie I had thought it would have been more powerful if it had started with the framing sequence and then stuck with Dina’s story, as the bullying and harassment got worse and worse and her ordeal took on a Kafkaesque intensity that made it all too clear why she finally broke down and killed herself — but the dual-track construction Stimpson and Holland actually used creates a powerful sense of drama as Rachel becomes a passion-driven revenge figure, anxious not only to find out who was responsible for hounding her daughter to death but to indict the whole high school and, indeed, the whole town for allowing it to happen. At the same time the movie is a powerful indictment of the Internet and the “zero tolerance” climate that between them has made adolescence even rougher than it was when I went through it, when there was still room for error — a chance to make the stupid mistakes of youth, learn from them and go on with your life temporarily sadder but permanently wiser. The key line is spoken by the avuncular African-American woman guidance counselor Rachel talks to in order to make sense of her daughter’s needless death — and the counselor says, “The Internet is forever.” Even if Dina had overcome her bullying and found the strength to live, That Picture would have followed her through the rest of her life, turning up in unexpected places and probably costing her more than one job. (I’ve had at least two people whom I interviewed for Zenger’s Newsmagazine ask me to take their stories off the Zenger’s blog, one because it was coming up in searches by potential employers and costing him jobs, and the other because she had joined the military while “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in place and she was afraid it would turn up and get her discharged. I told both these people that I would remove the articles from my own site but I couldn’t guarantee them that it wouldn’t stay lodged in some other part of the Web and still turn up to hurt them.)

Dina’s “sexting” her boyfriend was a reckless and stupid thing to do, but it was precisely the reckless and stupid thing teenagers often do and grow out of — only in the modern age the electrons and pixels preserve all the old stupid mistakes we made and wanted to share online. I’ve often warned people, “If you wouldn’t stand on a streetcorner and yell it out to all passers-by, don’t put it online.” At the same time I’ve often wondered how much of my own online conduct will come back to haunt me — especially if a future U.S. government dominated by Right-wingers decides to mount a new McCarthyite purge of the entire country, and finds the job far easier than McCarthy did because every petition we signed, every e-mail we sent, every protest we ever went to is documented on the Internet and all they’ll have to do is search willy-nilly and collect enough “evidence” to destroy people’s lives en masse. Indeed, while the Internet is often hailed as a venue of personal freedom, it’s also the ultimate tool for dictators: whereas the secret police of the Soviet Union and their Eastern European satellites could only mount their security cameras everywhere and scare their people into thinking they were being watched 24/7, the Internet really can watch people 24/7: modern computer technology can allow machines to collect evidence of political dissent far faster than the ordinary humans of the KGB or Stasi or SAVAK ever could. Sexting in Suburbia makes powerful comments on the vulnerability of anyone who posts anything to the Web and also the hermetic environment of a small town, in which virtually everyone turns against Rachel and she loses business because of her dauntless but deeply threatening effort to find the person responsible for driving her daughter to suicide by mass-distributing her nude photo.

What a pity that, after building to a really powerful drama in which the whodunit aspects of their plot actually add to the intensity, Stimpson and Holland can’t leave well enough alone and have to end their movie with two outrageously melodramatic twists — the texter turns out not to be Skyler (as we’ve been led to believe all movie) but Skyler’s mother Patricia (Judith Hoag), whom Rachel had ironically been turning to for support (they’ve been friends since before their daughters were even born) but who’d come to hate Dina because Dina was getting the star position on the hockey team and the scholarship Skyler thought was her due — and when Skyler finds out and turns against her mom, Patricia says the chilling words, “You’ll understand when you have children of her own.” Skyler responds by stealing her mom’s car and going on a wild ride that’s either ordinary teenage recklessness or her own suicide attempt, and she ends up alive but in a hospital and likely never to be able to walk again — and there’s a bizarre final scene at a school assembly in which, partly as a sign of respect and partly targeting the technology as the real culprit, Claire suggests that all the students give up their cell phones for the rest of the semester. The over-the-top silliness of the ending mars a movie that sometimes seems stupid (when Dina dies, the first scenes of Rachel after the suicide are marred by a sappy soft-rock song, and when the homecoming party occurs the band there is playing equally mediocre pop-punk) but sometimes is genuinely powerful and truly does justice to its subject, the multifarious ways humans work out to be cruel to each other and the extent to which the Internet has just facilitated the grim work of people senselessly destroying each other.