Two innovative and non-traditional movies, ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ and ‘R#J’ both present a look at the world on our screens.
Two films that debuted in the “Next” section of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival provided an equally incisive (and equally disturbing) take on the modern technological world. One is a retelling of a classic story in a new format, and the other is a cautionary horror story that is built for the modern world.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair was my personal favorite film at Sundance this year, a fictional movie that feels completely of the real world of 2021. Anna Cobb stars as Casey, a young woman who finds herself becoming increasingly (and self-destructively) invested in a YouTube game called “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” The film itself, directed and written by filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun, is jarring and disturbing in ways that reflect the way you watch the movie itself.
We follow Casey primarily through the screens she films herself on. Whether we’re watching videos she uploads on her YouTube channel or watching Casey herself scroll through her phone, a screen is in almost every part of the movie. A young woman in the 2020s, Casey has grown up on phones and computers and the internet. But as she gets deeper into the mythology of the “World’s Fair” game, her world becomes darker and more dangerous.
A man calling himself “JLB” begins to make videos specifically aimed at Casey, helping herald her through the world of the “World’s Fair.” While the movie answers very few questions about the nature of the artificial world, we begin to see how much time and thought both JLB and Casey are putting into it. The lives of these two intersect in emotionally charged ways, the lives of both impacted in a multitude of ways.
Schoenbrun’s filmmaking emphasizes the use of screens in Casey’s life, and the horror of the movie is mostly found in relating to Casey. At one point, I realized that I was playing into Schoenbrun’s game by pausing the movie to take notes about the small details written in the corner of a computer screen… essentially becoming a part of the game the film presents. Combining elements of ASMR videos, creepypastas, ARG games on YouTube, and more, Schoenbrun builds a movie that feels ripped from the internet of my teenage years. By taking the character of Casey and making us see the directions her life could go, it gets even deeper.
When the film ended, I found myself sad to see the world close off so neatly. But all it took was some extra thinking on my part to extend We’re All Going to the World’s Fair out to the real world, wondering what was real and what wasn’t. By the time I caught myself playing into the game, I was midway through my second watch in one morning. Schoenbrun succeeded at making me a player in his fantasy world.
By comparison, R#J is both more experimental and more classic. Telling the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with mostly the text of Shakespeare himself, R#J is told exclusively through phones and recorded videos. Produced by the same people who made Searching and Unfriended, director Carey Williams looks at how teenagers and 20-somethings use their phones to communicate and exist. By putting an all-too-familiar story in the background, he allows you to focus on the means of storytelling instead of the story itself.
R#J isn’t perfect, but it is a very well-developed visual feast. If you’ve found yourself looking for a movie built for your phone, you can do much worse than R#J. It also helps that the cast is filled with up-and-coming stars such as RJ Cyler, Francesca Noel, Diego Tinoco, Camaron Engels, Siddiq Saunderson, and more.
The liberties that R#J takes with Shakespeare can be annoying, but conceptually the film is remarkable and well worth your time. Plus, it will give you many more actors to keep your eyes on for years to come, so you may want in on this ground floor.
These two films represent the new wave of filmmakers and new styles of filmmaking, which the “Next” portion of Sundance is all about. Keep your eyes on Carey Williams, Jane Schoenbrun, and the whole of this branch of the festival. You might discover new favorites.