25th Jul2023

Fantasia 2023: ‘Stay Online’ Review

by Alain Elliott

Stars: Hordii Dziubynskyi, Roman Liakh, Oleksandr Rudynskyi, Yelyzaveta Zaitseva, Olesia Zhurakivska | Written by Anton Skrypets, Eva Strelnikova | Directed by Eva Strelnikova

It’s a brave director and film-making team that make a film set in and during the current Ukraine and Russia war. But that is the exciting and terrifying prospect we have with the Ukranian movie Stay Online and its director Eva Strelnikova.

When using a second-hand laptop a volunteer is called by a young boy who wants to know where his dad is (the owner of said laptop). Now, desperately wanting to give this child hope – and to give herself something to believe in, the volunteer sets out to find the father. A much riskier assignment than she ever thought it would be.

Perhaps the most obvious thing that sets Stay Online apart from any similar films is that this war is happening right now and that just makes things all that more frightening and very very real. The feeling that this is real continues because this thriller is almost entirely shown through the laptop screen of the lead character. It’s not a genre of movie that is completely original but there’s still not a whole lot like it out there. The Unfriended films did a good job of showing supernatural horror via a screen and 2018s Searching showed how expertly tension can be built through a single screen but Stay Online does something different.

It takes its time in getting to the main ‘thriller’ part of the movie but before we get there the scene is nicely set. We meet the lead character and her friends and family around her. We see online chats and video messages, and we can clearly see how much her mother is worried about her and her brother. Because of the war going on, you always have that worry for every character that this could be the last time we hear from them. The last time the two characters might ever talk or see each other. And the director uses this to brilliant effect the longer the movie goes on.

This style of “screen life” movies, even more so than a simple found footage movie, makes everything seem real. Like you are right there in the middle of it all. And as mentioned previously, with the war still currently active and everyday news, this gives you that feeling but tenfold. You absolutely feel the tension. The last twenty minutes or so are seriously edge-of-your-seat viewing and the viewer’s emotions will be all over the place almost as much as the lead characters.

I was glad that not a whole lot of violence is shown in Stay Online. I guess there is some kind of argument that to show war and its real atrocities, you have to show the gory truth but it would have felt unnecessary here. And the one moment that does produce this, feels much more important and shocking because it is so isolated.

Stay Online is a genuinely nerve-wracking and brilliant thriller movie. Interestingly, after you’ve seen it on a big screen, it might just be even better to watch on your laptop.

*** 3/5

Stay Online screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.


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