Texting is one of the most popular forms of communication in the world today, so why are movies still so bad at capturing what it’s really like to text?
At this point, it’s likely that if you watch a movie set in present day, cell phones will make an appearance. Like it or not, cell phones have become a permanent fixture of our every day lives, dictating various modes of interpersonal communication. It’s only natural that this would also show up in our movies.
Unfortunately, for all the good that cell phones do for shrinking the space between people and places, the portrayal of texting as seen in movies is straight up bad. As iMessage and WhatsApp remain two of the most dominant forms of text messaging around the world, movies still struggle to portray text messaging with authenticity. They fail to capture both the mechanics and culture of texting, giving us depictions that feel akin to watching a grandparent learn to use emojis.
Let’s get specific, shall we? There’s a laundry list of things wrong with texting in movies:
First: movies fail — either due to ignorance or inability — to get the mechanics of texting correct. Assuming the movie shows the audience the screen of the cell phone, something is usually off. Either the shape or color of the text bubbles is different from what it should be. Read receipts and the typing symbols are all over the place. Seemingly no one has discovered that they can turn their phone on silent.
Most of the time, movies — and TV for that matter — project the texts onto the screen onto blank space next to the character to make it easier to read. All of these things contribute to repeatedly unconvincing and uninspired portrayals of an everyday activity that should feel familiar to audiences.
Moreover, movies consistently miss the mark on the culture of texting. Characters seem to always know exactly what to say, responding to texts with confidence and articulate answers. Most conversations are far too formal, especially for those between friends. Most of the time, movies approach texting as an expository device — present to serve a specific informational purpose, rather than the revolving door for jokes, rants, and event planning that it really is.
Movies also approach texting as something you do when you’re not doing anything else, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Texting is that thing you do while you’re working, while you’re on the train, while you’re cooking dinner, working out, arguing with your roommate, or watching TV. Unlike how it’s portrayed in movies, texting is not an activity that’s performed a few minutes a day.
All of that said, the issue goes beyond the various ways movies fail to accurately depict the mechanics and culture of text messaging. The foundation of this problem is that there’s just nothing particularly cinematic about texting.
Until now, most depictions of text messaging in movies have been strictly informational. Text exchanges exist to answer one or more of the following: who, what, where, and when. Rather curiously, there’s little to no attempt made to define why this exchange is meaningful outside of the context of plot.
The why — or rather, the reason why the text exchange is meaningful, is strangely and artificially absent. The why is what takes something from a straightforward plot device to something more important. It’s especially frustrating how stale portrayals of text messaging feel when you look at the ways movies have made other forms of communication meaningful, inspiring, and engaging.
From emotionally overwrought handwritten letters in perfect cursive narrated over long, pensive stares to to late night, intimate phone calls made from a landline while snuggled in bed like in When Harry Met Sally, movies have a long history of taking written and verbal communication and turning it into something visually significant.
Most movies refuse to treat texting in the same way. Seemingly no one has found a way to make text messages any more than that — little blurbs of text shot from the hip in order to convey information to the audience.
That’s not to say some haven’t tried. Most recently, a montage at the beginning of Crazy Rich Asians uses an inventive style to show how quickly news can spread within an intimate community using text messaging, taking the text of the messages off the phone and onto the screen, embedding it within the visual text of the story.
Olivier Assayas’s film Personal Shopper is arguably the most cinematic representation of text messaging. In the film, Maureen (played by Kristen Stewart) begins receiving strange texts from an unknown number. Maureen, who happens to be a medium, believes that the messages may be coming from her recently deceased brother.
In Personal Shopper, text messaging is a central mode of communication that anchors the film’s stranger elements. The banality of texting compliments and balances the uncanny supernatural pieces of the movie. In this way, Assayas elevates texting so it becomes more than a basic mechanism for delivering plot.
The texts Maureen sends and receives have significance; we see her struggle for the right thing to say and cope with the erratic responses. The film acts as an interrogation into how technology — and texting in particularly — mediates our interpersonal relationships and shapes our own perception of what is real.
Unlike most movies, Personal Shopper demonstrated a clear understanding for how to portray text messaging in a way that engages with the significance and style of the medium.
Admittedly, this is a rather minor problem to take issue with, but as texting remains a ubiquitous influence on the every day lives of millions of people, it seems wrong that portrayals of text messaging should feel so disparate from reality.