Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We're All Going To The World's Fair

The highlight of Sundance ’21 is a transfixing portrait of creepypasta obsession

We're All Going To The World's Fair
Photo: Sundance Film Festival

Judas And The Black Messiah, Shaka King’s propulsive drama about Black Panthers chairman Fred Hampton and the months leading up to his murder by the FBI, “screened” last night at Sundance, providing a shorter, less glamorous, and largely online edition of the fest with its most prominent premiere. As Katie Rife’s full review is up on the site now—and since I mostly concur with her thoughts—I won’t expend many words on the late-breaking awards contender. That the film seems to eschew the kind of distortions and fabrications that mar the historically adjacent Trial Of The Chicago 7 is mostly a strength, though there were times when I longed for a little more dramatic liberty—at least, perhaps, in developing a closer, more complicated relationship between Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the man who sold him out, informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield). Kaluuya’s performance will likely be the center of many conversations about this involving movie, but it’s Stanfield, as the craven O’Neal, who quickens its pulse, providing what might otherwise be a strictly awed biopic with the desperate urgency of a thriller. (It’s the Amadeus approach, looking at a Great Man partially through the eyes of the fascinatingly weak one betraying him in his shadow.)

The festival ends tomorrow, a few days sooner than it would during a normal year, which means yours truly will spend the next couple days racing to catch up with the more acclaimed titles he bypassed throughout. Which is always something of a fool’s errand, or at least a quixotic mission: One unyielding law of Sundance is that you invariably leave it with the certainty that you neglected something major while watching something decidedly not. That 2021’s lineup is a little smaller and the “theater” just a mouse click (instead of a bus ride or long winter trek) away only contributes to the fear of FOMO; miss the boat on a great movie this year and you have no one to blame but yourself.

Judas And The Black Messiah
Judas And The Black Messiah
Photo: Sundance Film Festival

At least I can leave virtual Park City with an unqualified favorite of the fest. Barring some late-breaking revelation, that unofficial award belongs to We’re All Going To The World’s Fair, one of the best cases I’ve encountered in my nearly decade of Sundancing for not letting pedigree entirely dictate your viewing schedule. Slotted into the Next program, which tends to highlight scrappy debuts, micro budgets, and the weirder stuff happening beyond the borders of Indiewood, this first feature from writer-director Jane Schoenbrun is an independent film in the classic sense of the term—a true piece of starless DIY outsider art, the kind that used to make up larger blocs of the Sundance lineup before the mini-major boom of the early ’90s flooded the fest with studio influence. The film’s limited means suit its intimacy, and they dovetail with the isolated, unglamorous life of its main character, a teenage girl disappearing down the rabbit hole of online obsession and role-playing.

We meet Casey (newcomer Anna Cobb, projecting an ideal mix of vulnerability and spooky opaqueness) as she plants herself in front of a laptop and prepares to perform a creepypasta ritual—the first in a series of videos she’ll shoot for an online horror game called The World’s Fair, in which players chronicle the supposed physical and psychological changes they undergo. Capturing Casey’s flubbed opening remarks, her adjustment of the lighting in her attic, and eventually her fledgling incantation, this extended first scene unfolds entirely from the vantage of a webcam. That’s true of much of the film, which also toggles to the various YouTube clips she watches (with the ouroboros of spinning arrows, denoting a stalled connection or loading video, becoming an ominous visual motif). But Schoenbrun hasn’t gone full Screenlife, à la Unfriended. They just use aspects of that gimmick to immerse us completely in Casey’s claustrophobic daily life as a kid growing up in a nondescript nowhere America. (The one sign that she even has parents is a disembodied voice, ringing out from behind a wall and then never heard again.)

For a while, it’s not even entirely clear what kind of movie we’re watching. The atmosphere of seclusion and quiet dread is more potently unsettling than anything the fest’s midnight crop tend to offer. (There’s some Paranormal Activity-style surveillance that sent a chill down my spine, but it’s not played for a jump scare or anything.) Eventually, Casey makes a connection with an older someone behind an avatar and in front of a keyboard. The film comes to revolve around the mystery of our heroine’s mindset, which remains as unknowable to us as it does to this stranger with indiscernible motives of his own. Are Casey’s increasingly intense videos proof that she’s genuinely being transformed by the urban legend? Is she losing her grip, like so many kids swallowed up by the darkest corners of the web, or just pantomiming that for the story she’s telling through her updates? Schoenbrun lets the questions linger, straight through a poignantly ambiguous ending that answers few of them.

Strangely, there aren’t that many films that genuinely grapple with the way that the internet has fundamentally reshaped communication and maybe our relationship to reality, too. This is a sad, transfixing, and ultimately perceptive movie on the topic—one that understands how the web can offer opportunities for community and communion even as it allows everyone to disguise and maybe even lose touch with their identity. To see where the role-playing ends and the genuine expression of self begins may be as impossible as reaching out to touch someone through the glass membrane of the screen. We’re All Going To The World’s Fair feels like the perfect choice for a film festival that’s left all of us staring into the virtual void, searching for signs of life on the other end or at least in the library of films at our fingertips.

Flee
Flee
Photo: Sundance Film Festival

A more practical obscuring of identity lies at the center of another Sundance triumph, the documentary Flee. Amin, a thirtysomething refugee, recounts his childhood in Afghanistan and his family’s years-spanning attempts to escape that country and then post-Soviet Russia. Out of fear for either his life or the sanctuary he’s found in America, Amin tells this enthralling, harrowing story from behind the masking effect of animation: We never see his real face, only the artists’ rendering of it—and furthermore, a variety of techniques, from Rotoscoping to harsh charcoal painting, illustrate his memories.

At first, there’s something a little distracting about the approach, which superficially recalls Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir. I found myself having trouble focusing on the voice-over musings while gaping at the corresponding, often-breathtaking animation. Yet as Flee progressed, and Amin’s story began to accumulate fascinating details of environment and incident, I adjusted to the format. Animation, as it turns out, is an ideal tool for capturing the nuisances of memory; its capacity to heighten or exaggerate, through scale and color and abstraction, suits the emotional truth of a moment suspended in time. What’s more, director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who’s close friends with his subject, also includes animated “footage” of Amin in America today, interacting with his partner and going about his life and sitting down for the talking-head interviews from which the audio recollections are pulled. This creates a continuity between the present of the man’s life and the past he describes—one that live-action reenactments could never hope to achieve. What felt at first like an accidental distancing device actually closes the distance between the timelines. (It’s actually sort of the opposite of how Waltz uses its animation.)

In any case, Flee would be perfectly engrossing were it just the audio of Amin telling his story, given how candid he is in interrogating the events of his youth. Anecdotes about the stirrings of his sexuality (an attraction to Jean-Claude Van Damme was an early clue) sit alongside sobering accounts of a frightening and ultimately failed flight from Russia. By the end of the film, it’s hard not to feel a genuine flush of grief—not just for what Amin has lost along the way but for his disappearance from our field of vision, as members of an audience told a story that will continue after he stops telling it.