Fantasia 2021 – #blue_whale

by Naomi Roper

Dana  (Anna Potebnya) is grieving her little sister Yulya whose death by suicide was captured and shared on social media. A devastated Dana is convinced that her sister would never have taken her own life. When searching her sister’s computer Dana discovers that Yulya was playing a mysterious game called the #blue_whale game. The game is linked to a series of teen suicides. Determined to expose those behind the game Dana contacts the mysterious game runner Ada Morte and says she wants to play the game herself. Dana is given a series of tasks that must be completed before her “departure date” from this world. With time running out and with no one to support her but a suicidal fellow player Lesha (Timofey Yeletskiy) can Dana beat the #blue_whale game?

#blue_whale is a hugely enjoyable, ridiculously tense ride told in the screenlife format with a superb turn from Anna Potebnya as Dana. #blue_whale (and my lord that title is a search engine nightmare) is directed and co-written by Anna Zaytseva and produced by Timur Bekmambetov, who is a pioneer of the screenlife format. If you’re wondering what the hell “screenlife” means it’s the name for a particular offshoot of the found footage genre where everything you see in the film is the screen of someone’s computer or phone. The format gained wider public recognition recently with critical darling Host (where the action is a zoom call between friends) but the Unfriended series (Bekmambetov was the producer) was probably the first time it gained traction as a viable format. In this movie, everything you see on screen is either Dana’s laptop screen or her phone (they’ve been kind enough to translate the on-screen messages into English even if I was momentarily confused why Dana was speaking in Russian and typing exclusively in English).

#blue_whale is a Russian spin on the screenlife format and has shades of previous screenlife films Unfriended Dark Web and The Den (an underseen, gleefully nasty early pioneer of the format – retitled Hacked in the UK) with a sprinkling of the Reddit No Sleep forum. No Sleep, where users post spooky creative writing as if they were real events, is very fond of task-based internet game stories (The Left/Right Game is probably the best example of this and do go listen to the Tessa Thompson starring podcast version). Ada’s terrifying mask even has shades of the Momo challenge which had mums clutching their pearls not too long ago. #blue_whale’s story is absolutely steeped in internet lore.

While a popcorn thriller at heart #blue_whale has serious things to say about the epidemic of teen suicide (and the lack of mental health resources available), the sexual exploitation of young women and how easily troubled teens can be manipulated by strong personalities on the internet. The game expertly isolates Dana from her terrified mother and friends, forcing her into acts of self-harm as she is made to publicly humiliate herself and act in increasingly dangerous ways.  There is a common theme of how utterly useless authority figures are. Teachers are considered so ineffectual they’re not even mentioned. The police are hopeless buffoons. Dana’s mother is so terrified that her daughter is having a mental breakdown that she doesn’t stop to listen to a single word Dana says. In the world of #blue_whale a random person on the internet is more likely to offer the support and solace a troubled teen needs than any parental or authority figure.

Because screenlife films generally don’t have amazing visuals they live or die by their performances and I adored Anna Potebnya as the scrappy Nancy Drew like Dana. She completely carries the film on her narrow shoulders and you are so invested in Dana’s investigations that you desperately want her to succeed. Timofey Yeletskiy is also very good as the bullied, suicidal Lesha.

Genre audiences tend to be pretty savvy so there is no way that you are not going to be way ahead of Dana here but you know what? That doesn’t really matter. She’s a grieving teen it’s fine for the audience to be ahead of her even if I did start screaming at her at one point for not using a VPN. The action moves at such a breakneck speed that you never have time to question the credulity of anything that happens. 

The ending slightly pulls its punches but is dramatically very satisfying.

#blue_whale is a great addition to the world of screenlife films and I hope this gets picked up widely so that more people can see it.

#blue_whale had its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival.