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by Jay Seaver

"Makes a decent procedural out of contacting someone online."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Though producer credits can often go unnoticed by filmmakers who also do other things, Timur Bekmambetov has become fascinated by the idea of stories which play out entirely through a character's online interactions in recent years, having produced "Unfriended" and then a number of other similar movies reaching the screen this year. "Profile" is his first one where he actually directed the film, and though it's a story well-matched to the technique, there are sometimes still a few kinks to work out in the telling.

Based upon a true story but relocated to London, it picks up with freelance reporter Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) logging onto her computer on 13 October 2014, starting on a story about European women who, in a shockingly quick turnaround from their first online contacts, wind up in Syria as part of ISIS/Daesh. It is, in some ways, shockingly easy - she creates a new profile, searches for ISIS-affiliated pages, and after sharing some of what she finds, she's contacted by Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif), who though currently fighting in Syria was actually born not far from her in London. It causes her some momentary panic, but she presses on, trying to get Bilel to tell her alter ego of recent convert "Mellody" how she can reach him even as money and relationship issues make her real life more stressful.

One of the most interesting things about telling this story through Amy's on-line activity is how it puts exposition on blast, using Amy's offhand need to research to rapidly throw information at the audience without pretense of doing anything else, and through that establish some emotional stakes: While articles about jihadists and converts and the like jump on-screen, YouTube videos of the girl whose case put Amy on this trail also show up, and they're quietly heartbreaking, featuring the trembling voice of someone lost and generally limited to a quarter of the screen, making her feel more diminished and isolated.

That's just a couple minutes of this busy film, though, with the two who get the most time full-screen serving as the heart of the movie. Though Valene Kane is off-screen much of the time (although a Q&A after the film established that she actually is doing all of her own typing/navigation/etc., so that does reflect her performance), she makes the most of when we do see and hear her, giving a very clear characterization of Amy as smart but often disorganized and lackadaisical and prone to panic, enough to see "Mellody" as Amy giving her own performance but also making the areas where the lines blur over time interesting. It's a fine complement to Shazad Latif, who takes hold of the reasons the script gives for Bilel becoming a monster but never allows that or his sometimes disarmingly innocent actions (playing soccer or snuggling cats) pull him away from the banal evil of the young man trying to strike back at the world. He's a monster, but a human one.

It's a bit tougher to see him as seductive as he's meant to be, though; while Christine Adams and Amir Rahimzadeh are impressive in well-placed supporting roles as Amy's co-workers, her personal life is never involving enough to make that side of the story interesting. Her boyfriend and best girlfriend are boring and always feel like interruptions when they pop up on-screen, but not quite to the point where one could necessarily see Bilel and Syria feeling like a seductive alternative. Bekmambetov and his co-writers seem to focus on that a bit more than Amy's dedication as a through-line, and it's not the most involving choice; it's a big hurdle to get over in a fairly short period of time.

Passage of time is also where this "screen life" format had its biggest hiccups. Most of the films in this format have been designed for real time or close to it, and the cuts don't have the satisfying abruptness of a found-footage film. Bekmambetov builds an awkward framing device to divide the film into chapters, and the pacing within those chapters is often not quite right either, although things become much more solid as they near a climax.

Despite some of the film's occasional issues, it's still worth recommending for what it shows clearly, both in terms of the alienation that can preach people toward radicalism but also the bits and bolts of journalism. It is, almost offhandedly, a look at how that process is unglamorous and research-intensive while also putting a person in harm's way for the low wages and uncertainty of a freelancer's life. That doesn't always translate well to film, but Bekmambetov does that while telling his story in a new way.

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originally posted: 07/18/18 05:54:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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