A disturbing but nonjudgmental study of online addiction and the lure of manufactured identities.

Following a few of the many Netizens who have taken refuge from reality within the confines of a popular virtual world called Second Life, “Life 2.0″ is a disturbing but nonjudgmental study of online addiction and the lure of manufactured identities. Somewhat overshadowed in Sundance’s Spotlight section by “Catfish,” the fest’s more attention-grabbing docu about the perils of social networking, director Jason Spingarn-Koff’s creepily insightful debut feature will sign on at more fests (following its Sundance bow with an appearance at SXSW) and find a second life of its own on cable and some limited theatrical play.

Launched in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, Second Life has since logged millions of users globally, who create their own personalized avatars to explore this 3D simulacrum of the real world (as presented here in blown-up screenshots). Early on, the handful of Second Lifers interviewed describe this interactive realm as so inviting, so time-consuming, a skeptical viewer might worry that the filmmakers are only giving it free publicity. To Spingarn-Koff’s credit, such suspicions are almost entirely dispelled by the end of “Life 2.0,” a stealth horror film that’s all the more unsettling for giving its subject’s surface appeal its proper due.

For Detroit shut-in Asri Falcone, who spends almost every waking hour at her computer and uses Second Life to design and sell her own virtual fashion line, the world offers a genuine creative outlet and a steady source of income. Yet Falcone learns the pitfalls of e-commerce the hard way when her products are copied and stolen, igniting a fascinating discussion (with Second Life creator Philip Rosedale, among others) about copyright ownership and economic viability in cyberspace.

Opening a more chilling window into the psychology of the Internet-obsessed, the pic follows a young, unnamed Web designer who trolls Second Life in the form of an 11-year-old girl, “Ayya Aabye.” Skirting the weird implications of a cross-gender user-avatar relationship, Spingarn-Koff initially respects this subject’s privacy, shrouding his face in shadow and keeping the camera focused on his back (easily done, since he’s usually facing a computer). But the more he comes to grips with his addiction — at one point, he goes on an online killing spree, hoping Ayya will be banned — the more he comes into the light, literally and figuratively.

Yet “Life 2.0’s” most disturbing narrative involves a man and a woman whose avatars (“Bluntly” and “Amie”) fall in love, and who decide to make their relationship a nonvirtual reality — even though both are already married and live several thousand miles apart (she’s in Westchester, N.Y., he’s from Calgary). Scenes of Bluntly and Amie having pathetic-looking cybersex and wandering Second Life’s beautifully artificial landscapes — alternating with cringe-inducing footage of their real-life counterparts, who don’t seem to be much more “there” than their avatars — amount to a peerless study of how the Internet can foster seriously unhealthy levels of selfishness, infatuation and delusion.

While some may fault Spingarn-Koff (who often appears in the form of his own camera-wielding avatar) for focusing on the freakiest cases he could find, every thread here raises a provocative question about the ethics of online interactivity, and serves to demonstrate the Web’s ability to both facilitate and destroy human relationships. And while it’s not too hard to guess what the helmer thinks of his subjects and their quandaries, he maintains a scrupulously measured tone throughout, well aware that human eccentricity requires no embellishment.

Second Life visuals are smoothly integrated into the fabric of the film. Musical elements are nicely subdued, occasionally adding a quiet layer of dread.

Life 2.0

Production

An Andrew Lauren Prods. and Palmstar Entertainment presentation. Produced by Jason Spingarn-Karnoff, Lauren, Stephan Paternot. Co-producer, Jonathan Shukat. Directed, edited by Jason Spingarn-Koff.

Crew

Camera (color), Dan Krauss; music, Justin Melland; music supervisor, Eric Scott Hillebrecht; sound designer, James Panepinto. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Spotlight), Jan. 22, 2010. (Also in SXSW Film Festival -- Festival Favorites.) Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Asri Falcone, Amie Goode, Philip Rosedale, Rowan Barnett.

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