Opens a window into Internet abuse, adolescent pathologies and the parental heart of darkness.

Inspired by the Megan Meier cyber-bullying case of 2006, the low-budget, high-reaching “UrFrenz” isn’t satisfied to merely dramatize the scandalous MySpace suicide, but uses its various aspects to open a window into Internet abuse, adolescent pathologies and the parental heart of darkness. Briskly paced character play skirts formulaic pitfalls via J. Soren Viuf’s creative handheld shooting and remarkable perfs by fledgling thesps Lily Holleman, Najarra Townsend and Michael Robert Kelly. Subject, and a sense of the genuine, could draw a niche aud of teens because they’ll recognize their online world, and parents because they fear it.

Helmer Jeff Phillips doesn’t spell everything out in his script; he lets the camera do much of the storytelling. Catharine (Holleman) virtually runs off the screen in the opening shots — she’s been running for awhile, it seems, and from herself. When she changes in front of a mirror, we see old, self-inflicted scars on her stomach, and fresher lacerations on her thighs.

Catharine is a “cutter,” and the cause, at least partly, seems to be her abandonment by her childhood pal Madison (Townsend). Resentment over being unfriended in real life explains why Catharine thoughtlessly passes along a nasty rumor about Madison and her boyfriend. Very little, however, explains the reaction of Madison’s mother, Debbie (Gayla Goehl), who slowly, but with increasingly venomous intent, uses a phony online personality named Brandon (played in Catharine’s fantasies by James Maslow) on a fictional site called UrFrenz to seduce the lonely, insecure and self-destructive girl. Where Debbie plans to take all this scheming isn’t clear at first, even to her, but imminent catastrophe seems to loom over every chatroom exchange.

Phillips doesn’t in fact give viewers what they expect, but he does deliver a perfectly plausible scenario for what, even in real life, was an unbelievable narrative. Debbie, having turned she-bear over the perceived abuse of her daughter by Catharine, has had the good fortune to hire high school senior Jacob (Kelly) as her real-estate-office gofer. Jacob becomes Debbie’s online guide to chatrooms and Web jargon, and while it isn’t quite clear what the otherwise decent guy thinks he’s doing — Debbie’s clearly not up to anything good — the tutorials he provides his boss in online culture also serve as a primer for auds unfamiliar with the language of social networking.

But what makes “UrFrenz” really special isn’t educational, but emotional: The waifish, underfed Catharine is oftentimes the picture of teen misery, and young Holleman makes her not just sympathetic but iconic. While Townsend and Kelly naturally capture the unpleasant attitudes of self-entitled teens, Holleman gives us the high-wire hormonal fragility of the unpopular teenage girl. All three should benefit largely from the showcase of “UrFrenz.”

Tech credits are generally good, and Lisbeth Scott’s score is perfection.

UrFrenz

Production

A Virtually Exposed Prods. presentation. Produced by Jana Winternitz. Executive producers, the Phillips Brothers, Michael and Elaine Gallagher. Co-producer, Michael J. Gallagher. Directed, written by Jeff Phillips.

Crew

Camera (color), J. Soren Viuf; editor, Zachary Anderson; music, Lisbeth Scott; music supervisor, Diane Burk; production designer, Kristy Winter McCaw; sound, Chad Tomlinson; associate producer, Matthew Sullivan; assistant director, Shannon Marie Welch; casting, WinPhil. Reviewed on DVD, New York, Feb. 7, 2010. (In Slamdance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Lily Holleman, Gayla Goehl, Najarra Townsend, Michael Robert Kelly, CaroleAnne Johnson, James Maslow.
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