I’ve never been especially afraid that Janicza Bravo’s inimitable “Zola” might pave the way for more films based on Twitter threads; in the time since one of history’s biggest losers began to delegitimize the platform just because he’s so bad at using it, not once have I found myself wondering: “But where are we going to get our movies!?”
If anything, I expected BuzzFeed Studios’ “Dear David” — adapted from a viral, months-long thread that a former employee of the internet-famous content mill wrote about the ghost haunting his Queens apartment — to inspire some nostalgia for the days when the website formerly known as Twitter was still a wellspring of new media creativity, and not just a toxic cesspool of hate and misinformation. Alas, this low-rent, no-energy, seen-it-all-before genre wank left me absolutely terrified of returning to an era when micro-blogged cries for help could last for half a year and run the length of a novella. It’s the only scary thing about this movie, which ultimately rewards the same digital narcissism that it claims to decry (and that “Zola” deconstructed so well), and made me feel almost grateful that El*n has left us with one less place that conditions people to exploit themselves for clicks.
“Dear David” made me feel almost grateful that Musk thought he could buy his way out of insecurity, because this movie — written by Mike Van Waes — essentially twists Adam Ellis’ Twitter thread into a cautionary tale about the supernatural dangers of cyberbullying someone who can’t afford to dismantle one of the greatest journalistic tools in history just because he wasn’t getting enough likes. In this case, that someone is a creepy little kid named David, who grew up during the age of AIM and spent all of his time chatting with strangers in the basement of his parents’ bodega. One day someone told him to kill himself after he posted some of his own personal creepypasta into a chatroom, and now he’s a vengeful spirit who lurks around the internet and murders people for leaving mean anonymous comments, like if Samara from “The Ring” exclusively went after the haters.
In real life, or whatever version of it Ellis construed on his Twitter account back in August 2017, the hauntings seemed to happen as a matter of chance. In “Dear David,” they begin when Adam (Augustus Prew) tells a troll who didn’t like his latest BuzzFeed cartoon to “DIAF,” or “die in a fire.” The critic in me is forced to concede that the troll has a point (Adam’s cartoons do seem pretty uninspired, though they’re hardly the worst thing about the whiny and self-involved portrait this movie paints of Ellis), but the critic in me also knows what it’s like to have your work attacked by random people on the internet who are invariably more disappointed in themselves than they are at you, and publicly wishing death upon them is seldom the right way to respond. In any event, Adam probably isn’t the most deserving target of Dear David’s scorn, but this is kind of a “Drag Me to Hell” situation, where a decent person makes a questionable decision and is forced to meet the devil itself for their sin.
As if working at BuzzFeed as the site was losing its grip on meme culture weren’t hellish enough, Adam’s soulless boss (“Drag Me to Hell” co-star Justin Long at his shit-eating best) feels like a relic from aughts-era rom-coms as he circles the open-plan office and chides his staff for their failure to mine traffic from a recent story about someone waking up from a 21-year coma. But someone just waking up from a 21-year coma is the only person who’d find this depiction of online journalism to be realistic. The only thing that checks out is Adam’s constant fear of being fired, and the deep-seated insecurity that it brings to the surface, which leads Adam to withdraw from his boyfriend when they need each other most. That’s when he starts having night terrors in which he’s visited by a kid with half a head. And his rocking chair starts moving on its own. And his cats start huddling at the front door of his apartment at midnight every night.
Those are all phenomena the real Ellis Tweeted about with breathless enthusiasm at the time. One thing he didn’t Tweet about, because it didn’t happen, was the super-dopey scene where two 14-year-old kids troll strangers on the internet until they catch the attention of the Dear David account, at which point one of them nervously insists that they should stop what they’re doing and go watch “Riverdale” instead. The other one keeps going, and so David visits him overnight and shoves a ghost hand down his throat.
Everything about this scene feels beneath McPhail’s talents as a storyteller, which seemed obvious in the wake of his scrappy and winning zombie musical “Anna and the Apocalypse”; the set-up for the scare is laughable, the attack itself is duller than watching someone die of natural causes, and the choice to include it in the first place is an irreparable self-own for a film in desperate need of ambiguity. Is this really happening, or is it just a byproduct of Adam’s anxieties and sleep disorder? That’s the first and only question asked by his Twitter followers and his IRL friends alike, and yet “Dear David” has the same need for cheap jolts as BuzzFeed does for web clicks and social media posters do for serotonin hits, and so it opts for bargain-basement horror tropes instead of leveraging its premise into a more probing story about the real horrors of trying to be a working professional on the internet.
Curiously, “Dear David” is at its dumbest when it strains to split the difference, which is what it’s trying to do when Dear David hijacks Adam’s social media accounts and starts DMing hurtful messages to his friends. This leads to the beautifully stupid moment when the film’s antagonist — the ghost of a prepubescent child who, by all logic, should have no concept of post-AOL tech innovations — re-downloads Grindr onto Adam’s phone so that it seems like he’s cheating on his boyfriend.
That at least taps into a broader message about the perils of becoming more invested in the abstract world of online strangers than you are in the tangible reality of your offline relationships, which is more than I can say about the later sequence where Adam is… playing himself in a video game? Or something? Whatever is supposed to be going on there, it’s a pretty huge conceptual leap for a movie that hasn’t even managed to meaningfully dramatize the virality of Adam’s Twitter thread, or the effect that sort of attention may have had on Adam’s self-esteem (beyond a few errant kudos from his boss).
Of course, the real Adam didn’t do screenwriter Mike Van Waes any favors, as his thread started with all the narrative momentum of an unranked listicle before eventually running out of steam; the closest thing it has to an ending is the fact that Ellis now has a million followers and an OnlyFans account. Unfortunately, the backstory that Van Waes invents to give this story some shape is weak tea even by the standards of a long-delayed Halloween season horror release, and also inexplicably at odds with its own “don’t feed the trolls” messaging (unless it’s trying to say that by feeding the trolls Adam becomes one himself, but that angle lacks any credibility).
The only aspect of “Dear David” that rings true is its assessment that the internet, and especially Twitter, runs on insecurity. I’m glad that Adam comes to appreciate that he is enough, and I sincerely hope the same is true of the real person the character is based on, because inspiring a movie this bad is probably enough to make anyone have their doubts.
Lionsgate will release “Dear David” in theaters on Friday, October 13.