The premise of “Friended to Death” is clever: A callow young man, obsessed with posting snarky observations on Facebook and Twitter, decides to fake his own death in order to monitor the reaction of his 400-plus friends and followers on social media. The satire of contemporary manners and mores, while too blunt to draw blood, is sharp enough to sting, particularly for those of us who may recognize a piece of ourselves, or someone we know, in the mirror it holds up to society. It’s an assured debut for first-time filmmaker Sarah Smick, a District native now based in Los Angeles, who wrote the comedy with her husband, actor-producer Ian Michaels. Both have supporting roles in the film.
But the movie works chiefly because of Ryan Hansen (“Veronica Mars”), who plays the genial jerk Michael Harris, a parking-enforcement officer who hits upon the aforementioned social experiment after he loses his job and his childhood best friend (Zach McGowen), both as the result of interactions with the same man (Michaels).
These shots across the bow of our hero’s overweening self-absorption are enough to make him question the meaning of his very existence. Hansen plays the part of Michael — a handsomer, more obnoxious version of Napoleon Dynamite, who speaks in a funny patois of text shorthand and eye-rolling insults — with a kind of insecure brio. Other nicely defined characters (or, rather, caricatures) include Emile (James Immekus), a nerdy former co-worker of Michael’s who abets him in his fraud by posting the news of Michael’s suicide on Facebook. Their real-world relationship, which evolves over the course of the film from exploitation to genuine affection, is the film’s most satisfying pleasure.
“Friended to Death” is a solid and slick-looking production, despite an indie aesthetic that places its aspirations well outside the mainstream.
The movie, which has been well-received at a handful of film-festival screenings, wears its quirky heart on its sleeve, boasting sometimes defiantly silly dialogue. One running gag involves a character who repeatedly refers to another character with a stream of increasingly ludicrous variations on the word “bro.” “Bro DiMaggio” and “Bro-seph Gordon-Levitt” are just two of the more inane permutations. They’re cute, but like the film itself, they can wear a bit thin.
The farcical pitch of “Friended” is well-aimed, though it wobbles a bit as it passes home plate. A climax involving blackmail, kidnapping and an actual suicide attempt go further than necessary to deliver the movie’s point about insincere connections. The story’s message may not be the most original one in the world — put down your device and make eye contact — but it’s fun to watch it unfold in a world that, while far from realistic, feels real enough.
★ ★ ½
R. At West End Cinema. Contains crude language. 93 minutes.