Today from the Nashville Film Festival (which starts September 30 and runs through October 6), I have reviews of two surreal films screening there. “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” which premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, examines isolation through a lonely teenager’s internet interactions and the online challenge she engages in. And “Faye,” which is having its world premiere at the festival, is an engaging one-woman horror film made with a four person crew and shot on an iPhone. You can read my reviews of those movies below.
“WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR”
“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” takes place more often in the online space that the real world. Writer/director Jane Schoenbrun’s narrative feature debut opens with a lengthy scene in which teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) records a video to upload to the internet, the camera serving as the computer screen that she directly addresses. Casey is participating in the “world’s fair challenge,” an online game in which the participant states the sentence “I want to go to the world’s fair” three times and pricks her finger, drawing blood. She then watches a video that the audience is not privy too, but that seems to consist primarily of bright strobe lights accompanied by loud, pulsing noises. Supposedly, following these steps may result in some strange things happening to the participant. Casey’s reasoning for wanting to do it, as she says in her video, is, “I love horror movies and thought it might be cool to try living in one.”
But Casey’s desire to take part in the newest online fad is likely less because she’s seeking thrills and more because she’s searching for connection. We don’t see a lot of Casey’s life outside of the internet, but it seems to be lonely. She doesn’t hang out with friends. We only occasionally hear her dad off screen. She spends a lot of time in her room, lights out, illuminated by the otherworldly glow of the stars stuck all over her walls— and her computer screen, of course. Cobb, in her feature film debut, brilliantly embodies Casey’s awkwardness and isolation. At the start of the movie, we see her rehearse what she’s going to say in her world’s fair challenge video, fumbling just a bit, before she presses record and starts it over. A little while afterwards, she goes out to the woods to record a video update, but she doesn’t really have much of substance to say. We don’t know who or how many people watch her content, if any, but it’s clear that she is trying to reach someone.
Eventually, she does, and the way Schoenbrun suddenly flips the perspective away from Casey is jarring. But by doing so, Schoenbrun also reveals another sort of isolation that manifests itself online, one with more predatory intentions. A user called JLD reaches out to Casey one day with a weird message, claiming to have seen something in her videos about the world’s fair challenge and urging her to connect with him for help. On a Skype call, in which he can see her but she can’t see him, JLD makes Casey promise to keep making videos so he knows she’s safe. When the call ends, we don’t cut back to Casey, but rather to JLD (Michael J. Rogers), and see that he’s not another teenager, but an older man, situated in a pretty nice looking home office. JLD’s efforts to groom Casey throughout the rest of the movie serve as the catalyst for her coming of age story, prompting her to become more assertive.
The final act of “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” and the concluding to Casey and JLD’s relationship, told from the latter’s perspective, didn’t exactly sit right with me. But Schoenbrun, whose 2018 documentary “A Self-Induced Hallucination” was about the online world and Slenderman, clearly knows the internet. Their film is populated with a variety of internet videos, some real, some staged for the movie. We see ASMR videos in which the user whispering into the camera provokes more chills than comfort. We see a lot of people, not just Casey, documenting their experience with the world’s fair challenge. One claims to be turning to plastic. Another appears to get sucked into their laptop screen. They might be real, but they are more than likely fake; regardless, there’s something a little disturbing about seeing the sorts of actions people will stoop to get likes. This especially goes for Casey, as we see the quiet and seemingly sweet girl at the start of the movie engage in increasingly strange and erratic behavior. Schoenbrun takes what should be pretty innocuous content and turns them into haunting images. The experimental nature of much of the film and the aloofness of the two characters may occasionally hold the audience too far at arm’s length for them to fully connect to the story, but there’s a lot of fascinating stuff going on here regardless. “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” doesn’t just portray isolation as a byproduct of the internet on a surface level; it really understands it.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” will be screening at the Marathon Music Works on Tuesday, October 5 at 10 PM as part of the Nashville Film Festival; click here to purchase tickets. Runtime: 86 minutes.
Few films embody the indie filmmaking spirit quite as much as “Faye,” a one woman horror movie made with a crew of four people and shot entirely on an iPhone. And yet, the production values of “‘Faye” are so high across the board that you wouldn’t know it. Sarah Zanotti, who cowrote the film with director Kd Amond (both founds of Az If Productions), stars as Faye L. Ryan, the author of a popular self-help book who is struggling to write the follow-up. Her publisher offers her her isolated cabin in the Louisiana bayou for the week so she can write in peace, but while there, alone, Faye finds herself haunted by a mysterious presence. “Faye” is a horror film, and it’s appropriately tense and eerie, but it’s also a moving story about grappling with grief. The film is divided into five chapters, each one represented by one of the five stages of grief, and each one opening with Faye speaking directly into the camera, possibly addressing an audience about lifestyle tips, before diving back into the events at the cabin. It turns out that Faye was in an accident a while back that resulted in the deaths of her husband and unborn child, and the spirit she sees is a manifestation of the grief she is experiencing. The entire film revolves around Zanotti’s performance, and being the only actor in the movie, it’s safe to say that the movie could have failed in lesser hands, but Zanotti turns in a riveting performance that’s both fierce and heart-wrenching. She, along with the great camerawork and creepy, confined atmosphere, convinces the viewer to buy into this story. She never over-acts, and maintains the requisite level of suspense while also convincingly embodying a woman who is facing her worst nightmare and taking steps to overcome it. “Faye,” billed as the first ever one-woman horror movie, is inventive and exhilarating, and it’s clear that Zanotti, Amond, and their team know the genre, and know movie-making. “Faye” is proof that you don’t need fancy equipment and an enormous crew to make a good film; all you need is a camera and a story you’re passionate about.
“Faye” will have its world premiere at the Nashville Film Festival on Sunday, October 3 at 9:30 PM at Rocketown, and will be available to watch in the festival’s virtual cinema from September 30-October 6. Runtime: 83 minutes.
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