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D.C. native and first-time filmmaker Sarah Smick has a beef with Facebook. Her debut feature, Friended to Death (she directed, wrote, and co-stars), was inspired by a news item she read about a guy who faked his own death on Facebook to determine who his real “friends” were, but her skepticism of the ubiquitous social network was years in the making.
“I was a freshman in college [at Columbia] when Zuckerberg first put Facebook out there,” Smick says. “I signed up and thought it was useful. Flash-forward 10 years, and it’s still useful—but it has a lot of negative impacts in people’s lives, as well.”
In her irreverent new comedy, Smick has crafted a character who embodies the most troubling aspects of the social media generation. Michael (Ryan Hansen from TV’s Party Down and Veronica Mars) is a brash, annoying Los Angeles meter maid who spends his days giving unwarranted parking tickets and uploading pictures of them (along with his snarky comments) to the Web. He may be cocky on the outside—he frequently drops his impressive Facebook friend-count into conversation—but he hides a deep sadness. After getting rejected by his co-workers and his best friend on the same day, he decides to use social media to stage his own death and find out whether his “friends” actually care about him.
To Smick, the film illuminates the harmful impact Facebook can have on our mental health. “Social media allows us to sustain this weird delusion that we’re connected,” she says, “but we can keep people at arm’s length so that we’re not actually vulnerable, which is what I think defines real friendship. You can kind of trick yourself into thinking you’re happy.”
The film takes a deep, funny dive into these complexities. At one point, Michael wonders aloud if the “likes” a comment about his death receives is an endorsement of it or a signal of grief. Facebook is really just a plot device, though; Smick is more interested in how Michael gradually builds a real relationship with his accomplice, a similarly disgraced colleague who agrees to help him mostly out of pity. Most of the film plays as a broad comedy, but its bromance is deeply felt, and the final scenes are sneakily poignant.
It’s a promising debut from Smick, who grew up in Bethesda and has fond memories of going to the movies at the AMC Georgetown. She attended Holton-Arms School, which counts Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who Smick calls “a really unapologetic woman in the entertainment industry”) as one of its most prominent alumnae. Smick has already followed in the four-time Emmy winner’s footsteps: Louis-Dreyfus was once president of the Holton-Arms Thespian Society, a title that Smick held more than two decades later. “It’s fun to see these literal parallels that, of course, only I am probably aware of,” she laughs.
Now that Smick is finished with Friended to Death, she’s searching for a good story set in her hometown. “D.C. is underrepresented in film, and I have some script outlines that are set in Washington and use politics as a backdrop,” she says. With so much interest in D.C.-set properties these days, Smick’s chances look good—but in the meantime, her first feature debuts at West End Cinema on Friday. See it with a “friend.”