Sundance 2021: ‘John and the Hole’ and ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”

The kids are not alright. (And neither are the adults)

Disconnection, loneliness, and isolation are themes that have been especially relevant this past year as the global pandemic thrust the entire world into “social distance,” in turn speeding up the already-in-process migration of many of our social interactions from in-person to online. School closures forced students to take up remote learning, further adding to fears that this extremely wired younger generation could disappear even deeper into the endless caverns of the internet, in search of not only information but some form of connection.

It seems fitting then that the Sundance Film Festival – which was for the first time conducted virtually this year – featured two films honed in on the themes of disconnection, loneliness and isolation, from the point of view of modern children. John and the Hole and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair both have something to say about the experience of growing up in a hyper-connected yet disconnected world.

Charlie Shotwell appears in John and the Hole by Pascual Sisto. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

John and the Hole, written by Academy-Award winner Nicolas Giacobone (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)), and directed by first-time filmmaker Pascual Sisto, follows a 13-year-old boy, John (Charlie Shotwell) who decides to put his family in a hole in the ground and leave them there while he goes about the business of being a 13-year-old boy unsupervised. John occasionally stops by the hole to deliver food for his captive parents (Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle) and sister (Taissa Farmiga), but offers no explanations as to his motives or timeline as to when, or if, they might be set free.

John’s life on the surface seems one of privilege, yet it’s clear from the beginning of this quirky, dark fairy tale of sorts that something is missing for him. He’s lonely — a coldly buzzing toy drone is his main form of company, his one friend is a boy he plays video games with online, his parents are pre-occupied with their own lives, and school seems to view him as a number not a person. It seems John can’t figure out what the point of growing up – or for that matter, the point of anything – might be, so he tries disposing of his family and testing out what it’s like to live on his own terms. Or is it just that he wants to see if he can feel something – anything? There’s a cold, transactional nature to the motions he goes through on his own, as if that’s all he’s learned of how to live via his environment. And his family can’t seem to figure out why John might be doing this at all. There’s a meta-textual element within the film as well that I won’t spoil here – one that’s thought-provoking at best and a real head-scratcher at worst — but the film as a whole is an engrossing piece of work.

One might think 13 is a bit young to experience an existential crisis, but after a year of pandemic-induced isolation, young John and his hole seem rather relatable. He’s someone who wants to feel alive – to feel a sense of connection, of purpose – but he’s simply not sure how.

U.S.A. (Director: Pascual Sisto, Screenwriter: Nicolás Giacobone, Producers: Elika Portnoy, Alex Orlovsky, Mike Bowes). Cast: Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga. World Premiere

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

Anna Cobb appears in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair by Jane Schoenbrun, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Speaking of wanting to feel connected but not knowing how, Writer/Director Jane Schoenbrun’s uniquely terrifying look at the horrors of the internet and what it’s doing us, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, will make you want to grab you’re kids tight and log off the ole’ inter-webs forever.

Told through the eyes of lonely teenager Casey (in a stunning debut performance by Anna Cobb), as well as from the perspective of a computer screen, and a mysterious online stranger who goes by JLB (Michael J. Rogers), We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a uniquely disquieting work told in the language of the internet as it were, taking inspiration as much from the traditional narrative form as it does from the scroll of a newsfeed.

Casey, in its opening moments, is participating in a creepypasta-esque role-playing-game-style experiment. She pricks her fingers and recites “We’re all going to the world’s fair” three times while staring at a series of blinking lights. It’s anybody’s guess from this point as to what will happen to her, but if the YouTube videos from other participants of the “game” are to be believed, it could be any number of really bad things. Casey promises to document her journey and share it with her online fans, which mainly consist of a mysterious middle-aged man known only as JLB, who reaches out to her via Skype, and whom she only sees via his profile image of a creepy grinning meme.

In between Casey documenting her journey into the unknown, she flicks through YouTube videos, and chatrooms and stumbles across a whole universe of lonely souls each reaching out or expressing themselves via the internet in their own unique way – a cacophony of voices screaming into the ether as it were. As the effects of the game begin to wear on Casey, the obsessed JLB worries about her condition. She’s changing, and not for the better.

As much as We’re All Going to the World’s Fair highlights the inherit danger of the internet and what it’s doing to us (individually and as a society) better than anything else I’ve ever seen, it also says something about what we – as individuals, as a society – are doing with the internet. The internet, it illustrates, is both an escape and a prison; a snake that eats its own tail. The more disconnected we become, the more we reach out online for connection — and the more we reach out online for connection, the more disconnected we become.

Yeah, maybe it’s time to log off now.

U.S.A. (Director and Screenwriter: Jane Schoenbrun, Producers: Sarah Winshall, Carlos Zozaya). Cast: Anna Cobb, Michael J. Rogers. World Premiere

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