DO NOT REPLY, written and directed by Daniel and Walter Woltosz, brings me back to the chatroom days. It was a time when there was a strange thrill to be asked “A/S/L” in hopes that it would lead to a, though fleeting, potentially meaningful connection with a total stranger. These almost roulette styled interactions artificially fulfilled a void, and though in retrospect pretty sketchy, it made my preteen world a little less lonely if not more entertaining. Today, these interactions are even more prevalent, but now with cellphones and dating apps, there seems to be more willingness to take risks despite, contrarily, being in a much more circumspect society.
Chelsea (Amanda Arcuri) is an introverted high school girl who lives in her cheerleader sister’s shadow. Her best friend, Mia (Ivon Millan) is starting to explore relationships with boys and consequently disregards Chelsea’s feelings. Mia has big plans to hook-up with a boy and drags Chelsea into her ploy by pressuring her to preoccupy the boy’s friend alone on a couch. Here is where we start to see a male director’s attempt to convey sexual harassment. The scene is uncomfortable and Chelsea awkwardly brushing it off rings true to many cases of harassment, but the lack of character development and space for reflection on what just happened reeks of a lack of perspective. This black and white take on sexual harassment and the objectification of women is only the beginning, however, as DO NOT REPLY is solely based on it.
While Chelsea is in the back seat, third-wheeling most scenes, she continues to get these flirtatious and prying messages from a mysterious VRCOWBOY. An instant messaging relationship blooms into a facetiming one but only VRCOWBOY can see Chelsea, as he manages an excuse for his blurred-out image. Though an obvious red flag, their relationship continues to flourish and fill a void. When Chelsea lies and tells him that she is a cheerleader (like her sister), they decide to meet up in costume at a Halloween party. Through very predictable turns, we find Chelsea chained up in some dreary basement. Here we meet not VRCOWBOY but Brad (Jackson Rathbone).
This is where DO NOT REPLY stops being just some misunderstood high school flick and starts to have some fun. Brad eventually introduces Chelsea to the rest of the house in all its pastel glory. To her surprise she finds other robotic blonde cheerleaders coming out of the woodwork, all of whom will only respond to the name Sadie. These women have been beaten to submission and now act as perfect housewives to a peremptory Brad. Now it is time for Chelsea to look like and become one of them and stay locked up in Barbie’s dream house. Chelsea, now Sadie, learns the hard way that escape is not an option. However, she soon discovers that Brad uses a comically elaborate virtual reality headset to trigger and fulfil his darkest fantasies and she must figure out how to use it against him.
The acting is subpar and though Rathbone’s take on intermittent insanity is quite entertaining (maybe he should have gone for chilling), it gets thin quickly. His back story has flavor but might not be able to pull any strings with the audience. The plot has so much potential but fails to provide any real substance or scares and the relationships are quite wooden. And it’s all a real shame because the sets are great and the concept, though not original, could have been made into a solid slasher with just a little, well, a lot more care.