Grimmfest: We’re All Going To The World’s Fair

Jane Schoenbrun’s portrait of a life lived online is an occasionally challenging watch that will hold some at arm’s length.

Synopsis: “I want to go to the World’s Fair. I want to go to the World’s Fair. I want to go to the World’s Fair.” Say it three times into your computer camera. Prick your finger, draw some blood and smear it on the screen. Now press play on the video. They say that once you’ve seen it, the changes begin… In a small town, a shy and isolated teenage girl becomes immersed in an online role-playing game.

The internet and more specifically social media has never been more present in our lives, allowing connection across vast spaces and time zones. Many films seek to imbed this sensation of being online into the very fabric of the narrative, resulting in ‘screen life’ efforts that spin off from found footage films in many ways. Turning a laptop screen into a storytelling device presents obstacles, which World’s Fair alternates between embracing these restrictions and removing itself from them entirely. The result is an immersive, disquieting experience that truly echoes the ebb and flow of being online, indulging in the kind of myth building that comes from only showing glimpses of the truth.

Casey (Anna Cobb) lives a solitary existence and one that revolves around her device and an online world that removes her from her place at home. Becoming involved with an online game that appears to hold the key to a fascinating transformation, Casey indulges in the challenge, but there is something more sinister under the surface.

The film’s flirtation with screen life storytelling produces something far more ethereal, with the physical and digital worlds constantly intersecting and overlapping with one another. The first time we meet Casey, she is taking part in the challenge – a muted but intricately detailed sequence of events that involves watching a video. However, that ritual soon spills into reality as she has to contribute blood, traversing the gap between digital and physical, new and old forms.

As I approach my mid-thirties, I’m keenly aware that the effect of this film on me may not be as potent as it will be for younger viewers, more attuned to the consumption of online media and the forms it presents. A sequence in which Casey attempts to settle herself to sleep using an ASMR video plays out across a projector becomes a portrayal of a craving for distant intimacy. Using the video as a source of comfort and as a coping mechanism draws Casey out of her room, but into a different, secluded space.

Anna Cobb occupies a huge amount of the screen time and it is to her credit that she delivers such a demanding performance when Casey herself can be such a slippery character. She is sensitive, yet petulant at times, vulnerable but forthright and Cobb manages to portray all of these nuances incredibly well. Her command of the screen is something that is sure to draw in those who may feel alienated by the very online, somewhat obscure direction the film takes at times. Her interactions with JLB (Michael J Rogers) as he implores her to ‘keep making videos so I know you’re still OK’ add a sinister thread, but also highlight how malleable and fleeting internet interactions can be – a deleted account and someone is entirely erased.

As Casey’s journey to the World’s Fair continues, the film manages to expertly evoke the near-constant stream of content that the internet has to offer, lacing sections with menace and a concern about what is about to be witnessed. This is a film that so infrequently turns up the volume or makes anything fully flesh, such is its careful ambiguity, that when it does, it hits far stronger. Schoenbrun allows things to play out almost in real-time, refusing to be rushed or play by the usual rules. As the tension builds, she is content to allow it to play out, constantly denying the viewer an ‘out’ or full understanding.

While some will ultimately feel too alienated from this to really appreciate it, the moments of ritual, emphasis on communication and well-articulated uncanny moments, We’re All Going To The World’s Fair feels like a very special film.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Grimmfest 2021: The Guest Room

The Guest Room is a home invasion thriller with a difference, probing the nature of isolation and trauma as it raises the stakes.

Synopsis: The morning Stella decides to take her own life, a stranger knocks at her door claiming the guest room he booked for the night. Surprised but charmed by this man who seems to know her very well, Stella decides to let him in. But when Sandro, the man who broke Stella’s heart, joins them at home, this odd situation turns immediately into chaos.

“This time thing is a mess,” posits a character in The Guest Room, but thankfully the film doesn’t live up to that line, producing an intriguing take on the home invasion thriller.

From the outset of The Guest Room (La Stanza) introduces Stella (Camilla Filippi) as a Miss Havisham-style figure, wandering her home in a wedding gown, deeply upset and on the brink of ending her life. She is interrupted by a knock at the door and is soon confronted by pushy stranger Giulio (Guido Caprino) who insists that he has booked a stay at the house despite Stella having removed the listing from booking sites. He is so insistent and the weather is so bad that Stella relents and allows him to stay. But soon the stranger reveals himself to be out for far more than an overnight stay.

With so many pandemic projects in the works, it is easy to find yourself fatigued by the themes of isolation. Where The Guest Room succeeds then is in approaching this in a way that feels different, linking its study of isolation not to the pandemic, but to the depths of emotional trauma and the way it can spread through families, leaving a damaging legacy. Despite being made under pandemic conditions, the separation from it will ultimately serve this film well, giving it a sense of timelessness.

Confining the action to the house and mostly to the performances of Filippi, Caprino and later, Edoardo Pesce as Sandro, The Guest Room is somewhat minimalist, but dials up the drama steadily. The large house that provides the base for the film works well, providing a large kitchen area that allows all three to be in the same space at once, but also benefits from several rooms to dispatch characters to at certain points allowing the narrative to further unfold. The house’s design is excellent too – almost fairy-tale-like in its construction and multiple hallways and grand staircases. That much of the house feels untouched and unprepared lends pathos, pulling the viewer into the mindset of the characters.

As so much of the film is reliant on dialogue and tense situations in which uncomfortable revelations and confessions spill out, there is a reliance on melodramatic performances, which won’t be to everyone’s tastes. That the film evolves into its final form rather delicately, adding new details section by section rather than in the form of a veering twist gives it a sophistication alongside its more dramatic tendencies.

While not perfect thanks to a middle section that slows and becomes repetitive, this is undoubtedly a fresh way of tackling the themes we’ve all become far too accustomed to over the last year or so. A shorter run time, still allowing the mood to fester and having the confidence that its concept is well realised enough to not have to dwell on making sure the audience have understood.

Striking in its beauty but a little overlong for the story it needs to tell, The Guest Room is definitely one to look out for if you enjoy genre blending and high tension.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

The Guest Room plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.