Freaky Friday updated the 1976 classic, by way of the 1995 telemovie, for the early 2000s. Like its two precedessors, it’s about a mother-daughter body swap and, like the original film, it’s obsessed with technology. In the original, we saw destroyed typewriters, overexposed film and other zany touchstones in mid-70s media; here, the mother and daughter, played by Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, are poised at the cusp between first and second generation mobile phone users. From the moment we’re introduced to Tess (Curtis) and Anna (Lohan), Freaky Friday is utterly hyperactive, and often appears to be playing at double speed, so rapidly does director Mark Waters shift from scene to scene. We’re introduced to that pacing as Tess lines up all her pagers and mobiles in a row, situating this speed within a world where people are just beginning to acclimatise to the demands of multiple mobile interfaces.
Both Tess and Anna embody different aspects of this world, but go against the grain of what you might expect from a teenager and middle-aged woman, meaning there’s a comic generational reversal baked into the film from the outset. On the one hand, Tess is addicted to mobile media – she’s always plugged in, always connected, and is usually fielding several calls at any one time. In an early scene, we see her move through a supermarket, speaking into an earpiece, while taking a separate call from her mobile, and also checking her pager, collapsing any semblance of a public sphere into these competing digital interfaces. Tess lives in a world where nobody has quite nailed the ergonomics of multiple mobile devices, producing a mobile screwball in which every conversation takes place at slight cross-purposes. You sense, inchoately, the emergence of screen addiction from phone addiction, for while these early mobile phones don’t offer the same kind of visual stimulus as a smart phone, they do tend to abstract Tess from whatever is directly in front of her face and eyes.
On the other hand, Anna largely eschews mobile media, preferring the raw immediacy of garage rock – exactly the music you’d expect her Gen X mother to be into. Yet Anna’s addiction to noise also reflects this social media climate in a different way, evoking a new sense of a digital ether chock with invisible interferences that make even the simplest conversations exhausting when they’re not rerouted through mobile devices. In response to Tess’ overlapping mobile interfaces, Anna creates overlapping planes of sound, and both of them converge on our first introduction to the family as a whole. With Anna’s band thundering up from the garage, and her grandfather half deaf, everyone has to yell at full volume to be heard, and even then the entire sonic palette of the film feels dangerously awry.
In other words, Anna’s fascination with noise is a correlate of Tess’ addiction to mobile media, since both are symptoms of a new digital public sphere where there is simply too much interference to communicate directly in real time and space. Everyone is exhausted from trying to speaking through this murky sonic ether, forcing them to periodically retreat to highly constrained spaces just to hear themselves think, or engage in normal conversation with another person. Anna finds solace in the detention hall at her local school, where she strikes up a rapport with the supervising teacher, while Tess retreats to her job as a therapist. For all the neurotic dependence of Tess’ clients, she’s the one who needs this space the most, since it’s the command centre of her different mobile devices, the hub where they converge.
In order to communicate outside of these sanctioned spaces, Tess and Anna (and the other characters) have to resort to yelling – and these screams usher in the body swap that drives the film, along with a series of other cries that echo out across their family home. On the face of it, this body swap provides the direct connection in real time and space that Tess and Anna have been grasping towards. Now that they’re living in each others’ bodies, and experiencing each others’ lives, they can commune more directly with each other than ever before. Yet the body swap quickly deflects their communication even further, if only because they’re now talking to themselves, meaning their conversations are completely inscrutable to anyone else.
Nevertheless, over the course of this one day, they realise that together they have the resources to restore a direct line of communication. In Tess’ body, Anna gets a newfound sense of the power of mobile networking, while in Anna’s body, Tess realises the importance of spontaneous noise. Conversely, Tess’ first mistake is trying to tone down Anna’s lifestyle, while Anna’s first mistake is not taking all of Tess’ calls. As they learn to broker the other’s skill set, they gradually rehabilitate individual conversations in real time and space, from the way Tess handles school friendship as Anna, to the way Anna handles patients as Tess. In one of the main comic set pieces, Anna (as Tess) appears on a chat show to promote her mother’s latest psychological book. The main thesis of this book is that middle-aged exhaustion comes from an ageing process, or what Tess terms “senescence.” However, Anna (as Tess) provides a new interpretation of “why we are so tired,” attributing it to the impending digital ether, and advocating a return to primal scream therapy to combat it, rather than conventional therapy.
Rather than removing this digital interference, Anna draws on Tess’ mobile dexterity, and Tess draws on Anna’s taste for noise, to surf it ever more elegantly as the day draws to a close. In doing so, they capture the digital ether in their own escalating emotional feedback, harnessing the resonance of the body swap until it crashes and crests over the Pacific Coast Highway, the limit of the film’s sonic sprawl. It all climaxes with Anna and Tess performing a rock concert together, Tess-Anna on the stage pretending to play as she networks the mobile gaze of the crowd, and Anna-Tess sending out wave after wave of guitar feedback behind the scenes. That perfect balance of mobile prescience and abrasive noise propels the women back into their own bodies, and propels the film itself into its final poise, as a second rock performance, now with Anna and Tess as themselves, generates the raucous credit sequence, arming its audiences with a shield as they return to the digital ether just outside the theatre.