Happy Slapping is a movie that slowly won me over. It’s a film that’s difficult to get used to, but I’m glad I finally did.
That said, I am torn. Despite my surprised reaction, Christos Sourligas’ film is something I can’t outright endorse. At least, not without a few warnings and reservations because of how it was conceived and how it ultimately looks on screen.
You may have heard of Happy Slapping already. It may be better known as “that film that was entirely shot on cell phones”. That’s true. Don’t worry, the movie squeaks over the finish line at an hour and fifteen minutes. So, if you have a strong stomach during movies like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, you won’t find the jittery filmmaking to be obnoxious. If you feel your lunch rise with the slight thought of someone running with a videocamera, I don’t understand why you’re still reading this review.
Sourligas’ film has been referenced with The Blair Witch Project in the promotional materials, but that’s only because the two share a sort of on-the-fly type of cinematography. The director has trust in his cast to shoot the whole film from their perspectives. A character named Boomer (played by Jesse Camacho) shoots most of the footage with the odd cutaway zipping to various other phones among Boomer’s friends.
The Blair Witch reference is a bit too easy though. Happy Slapping shares more in common with 2012’s repugnant Project X. The good news: this film at least has a correct sense of what’s cool and what isn’t.
Project X sleazily celebrated unstoppable anarchy, underage hi-jinx, and unruly sexualization. Sourligas (along with co-writer Annakin Slayd, and story editors Alex Epstein and Daniel Godwin) show similar wild attitudes, but go in the opposite direction of how the audience should feel. The characters are what they are (teens who roam free, lack responsibility, and get drunk and stoned in the city’s parkette), and the writing team understands what sort of light they should be displayed in.
Boomer and his friends are brash kids, but we never hate them. This is because the film has a brain and it’s quite clear none of what we see is supposed to be amusing. The odd surprise may make us gasp out of shock, but we never see our camera operators as “good guys”.
I suppose Sourligas could’ve headed into more of a satirical direction with his vision instead of just showing how shallow youth can be nowadays, but that could’ve opened the film up for some belaboured sequences involving more societal mirroring. He may have held back because he thought the film is radical and telling enough through its visual aesthetic.
The filmmaker’s intentions may come across without too much of a hitch, but Happy Slapping is frequently awkward. For one, it’s hard to get used to these kids shooting everything that happens over a span of night from their handheld device. I hear enough from too many smartphone consumers complaining about their dwindling battery life. If Boomer is able to flawlessly capture everything without the mention of a blinking “low battery” signal, he has the must-have phone of the season. Take that iPhone 6, and shove it.
Secondly, it’s hard to make multiple shooters look ordinary. In many scenes, we see people talk to each other while they hold their boxy phones to their faces in order to catch a different angle for editors Tony Asimakopoulos and Joseph Bohbot. Natural lighting also makes for some blotchy complications, but can occasionally pull off some artsy happy accidents.
But amongst the stiltedness that’s to come with making a film with an approach this risky, some of that awkwardness starts to settle. The actors even find a way to gel as well. A scene that takes place in a vacant bar begins on a skeptical note with a bartender that’s being far too charismatic towards these sketchy teens, but his generosity pays off. The events are then taken to a far out level, but most of this material and freewheeling finds its place. Even that barkeep and his lightheartedness finds a way to belong.
Happy Slapping is an impressive surprise that’s about as powerful as Larry Clark’s Kids. However, I hope Christos Sourligas can understand my weariness when it comes to outright recommending his flick to moviegoers. It’s a film that you don’t have to rush out to see, but it’s a quintessential example of something you find on VOD, get intrigued by the synopsis, and feel satisfied after you’ve watched it out of curiosity.