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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’ and the difficulty of coping IRL

Amandla Stenberg (Sophie) and Maria Bakalova (Bee) in “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a horror film about a group of stranded friends.

By Kalia Richardson

A lip-locking close-up is the first we see of Sophie (played by Amandla Stenberg) and Bee (Maria Bakalova), her girlfriend of six weeks. Seemingly pulled from the pages of a fairy tale, Sophie confesses her love for Bee as they lie in a green meadow surrounded by nature. Within seconds, that affectionate scene gives way to a shot of the two absorbed in their phones as agitating dings and notifications dry up any remnants of intimacy or passion.

These juxtaposed moments in the new satirical slasher “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies” ridicule the inability of its Generation Z characters to establish meaningful connections when a blinding screen forms a glaring barrier: “Sophie is expecting Bee to perform this intense level of vulnerability, even though she perhaps has not earned it,” Stenberg explained in a video call, “and I think that’s something that we expect now of everyone because we all perform vulnerability on the internet.”

That’s one of several ways the film — about a group of privileged, internet-hungry 20-somethings stranded at a house party — tries to paint a portrait of the generation born within a few years before and after the millennium. Using humor, horror tropes and a cast of young stars, the film forces its characters to reckon with their nondigital identities and pokes fun at their symbiotic relationship with cellphones, their jargon based in trauma and the despotlike force of the group chat.

As director Halina Reijn said in a video call, “when the Wi-Fi goes out, it’s like they lose oxygen.”

Soon after arriving at the isolated mansion, Sophie, Bee and their friends play Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, a party game involving a mysterious killer the players must identify and vote off in each round. But when the power goes out amid a hurricane, real bodies begin to fall. The characters’ behavior turns beastlike, Reijn said, and they forget how to respond to a crisis disconnected from the digital world.

“We can totally live in the face of death and still speak about things that are so unimportant but are so big to us,” Reijn said. “I find that funny and tragic, of course, at the same time.”

Stenberg, star of “The Hate U Give” and the forthcoming “Star Wars” series “The Acolyte,” served as an executive producer of the film and drew on her own experience with digital life. She said screenwriter Sarah DeLappe (a playwright known for “The Wolves”) embedded the script with so much wit that the moments of hypocrisy and vapidity became easy to create. “The point is not to say that Gen Z is not intelligent or sophisticated but, rather, to provide a commentary for how absurd the circumstances” are, Stenberg said. (DeLappe was not available for comment.)

Among those moments, the partygoers, friends since childhood, playfully film TikToks over the Tyga-Curtis Roach anthem “Bored in the House” and rave about social media likes.

Gen Zers rely heavily on digital spaces for self-expression, community building and news gathering, Stenberg noted, but also face a sense of cognitive dissonance as they try to stay present in virtual life and reality. Indeed, said Sarah Bishop, a professor of communication studies at Baruch College, “for them to be able to defamiliarize or step back from this massive presence in their life is asking them to do something impossible, right? It’d be like asking them to imagine living without solid food.”

Alice, played by Rachel Sennott (“Shiva Baby”), invites her 40-year-old Tinder match, Greg (Lee Pace), to the house party. In Reijn’s view, Greg serves as a bridge for older viewers: He tries to learn the rules of the game but uses sports analogies a dad might use, like “the best defense is a good offense,” and just bewilders the younger crew. For Reijn, who at 46 is a Gen Xer, Greg represented her personal detachment from Gen Z. “This goes, of course, for every generation that grows older; you always sort of lose touch,” she said.

Still, Reijn wanted the film to be real and honest but also funny as each character shared the primal urge to belong when online usage swallows self-awareness.

“I think we live in a time where we’re all very narcissistic, because we’re constantly on the camera,” she said. “Right now, we’re constantly aware of how we look, and that is, of course, unprecedented, right? Normally, that was just actors or musicians, and now it’s all of us.”

Despite the physical danger each character faces, their virtual realities remain central to the plot. As the lifelong friends, drunk and high, try to determine who the killer in the game is, Emma (Chase Sui Wonders) exclaims that her boyfriend, David (Pete Davidson), is gaslighting her. David’s response: The word is meaningless, and all she did was read the internet. Be more original.

With the use of trauma-centered jargon such as “gaslight,” “trigger,” “toxic” and “narcissist,” overuse can cheapen the language’s original value, Wonders said.

“I think Gen Z has a brilliant, brilliant way of latching onto words, giving them so much beautiful meaning and having it spread like wildfire across cultures,” she said, “and then have it swallowed by irony.”

Viewers can’t help but laugh at the friends’ misery as they take emotional stabs at one another. Sophie erupts about the double standard between Black and white drug users, but rather than admitting the disparity, Alice responds, “I’m an ally.” Or when Jordan (Myha’la Herrold) questions Sophie about ghosting the group chat, she responds, “You trigger me.” Herrold, who declared this her favorite scene, said the cast spent late hours editing and rewriting the sequence to make sure it remained relatable.

“A lot of the Gen Z language, ‘gaslight’ and all that, some of that was cut, and we were like, ‘No, it has to stay in here,’” Herrold said.

“Bodies Bodies Bodies” is one of a number of films from A24 to try to capture a generation — think “Spring Breakers” and “Lady Bird” before it — this time to the tune of Charli XCX’s “Hot Girl,” epitomizing the egotism of post, reply and repeat.

This includes group chats. Comparable to cliques at a high school lunch table, the chat dictates who is in and out of the friend group. These chats hold political meanings, Stenberg said, and when Sophie strolls into the party without properly notifying the chat first, the house grows hostile.

“I’ve been in friend groups before where it’s a big deal if someone is removed from the group chat or someone is added,” she said, “and it’s this horrendous, toxic thing where someone’s presence can be physically determined.”

From digital media addictions to gripping group chats, Stenberg said, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” doesn’t aim to classify social media as the villain but the mirror within us all.

“We have to think carefully and intentionally about how those tools can bring out and amplify the parts of us that are the scariest,” she said.

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