Monday, May 10, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.03: Holler and We're All Going to the World's Fair

Neither of these movies are really bad at all, although I must admit that my thoughts after each were:

* Dang, Jessica Barden is not an actual teenager? She sure seems just that young.

* Was We're All Going to the World's Fair shot around Yarmouth, ME? Some of the exteriors looked really familiar, but also like the sort of streets you see in any sort of mid-sized town.

Anyway, I feel like both could have been sharper, though I did how Holler was satisfied to make Ruth regular-person smart rather than a genius (unless it was made by a bunch of people who think her doing some basic arithmetic is super-impressive, which has happened). She's not Will Hunting, but bright enough that this would actually make a decent pairing with the previous day's A Reckoning in Boston, stories about how there are probably a lot of smart people out there who just don't get the opportunity. Some of the most intriguing bits are about how everyone, even Ruth, kind of accepts that she's not cut out for anything but what she's got.

As to World's Fair, well, the EFC review is verging on spoiler territory already, so…


I think what made this fall flat for me was that it was really hard to tell for most of the movie whether this is "spooky internet thing having real-world consequences" or "teenagers play-acting online opening themselves up to adult predator", and it never developed tension between the two possibilities. I tend to gravitate toward the non-supernatural version anyway - the whole deal where people thinking outspoken young girls are witches is scarier than young girls being witches - and I think that there's a really good movie to be made about how these unformed teenagers are creating elaborate alter-egos online and earlier generations either don't get it or want to insert themselves into it. But you've got to leave room to play with that, rather than getting to the end and saying "oh, that's what this movie was really about".

It's a shame, because the very end, when they lean into it, with JLB smirking as he makes up a story about how he helped "Casey" a year later, is one of the most believable and genuinely unnerving things in the movie, and it would have been great if were able to get something even close to that level of intensity during the previous 80 minutes.



* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

I wouldn't necessarily have guessed that Holler is filmmaker Nicole Riegel's second go at the material, but it makes sense in retrospect - the story at the center is straightforward, but with a lot more room to explore the world around it, even if she doesn't make things that much more intricate and complicated than you might find in a ten-minute short. It kind of lives right on the line where one might want her to explore certain things further but are also glad they aren't forced, winding up a familiar tale but still fairly satisfying.

It opens with Ruth (Jessica Barden) dashing down the street and hopping into a truck with brother Blaze (Gus Halper); with their mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) in jail because she can't afford rehab and jobs scarce in this small Ohio town, selling scrap to salvage-yard owner Hark (Austin Amelio) is the best way they can make ends meet. It means her attendance at school is lousy, which is a shame, because she's smart enough to get into college, although to make the kind of money where the family could afford that, they're going to have to get a little deeper into Hark's organization, where they raid abandoned factories at night for the copper wire, an order of magnitude more illegal, dangerous, and lucrative than what they've been doing.

The action in Holler probably stretch out over more than a couple weeks or so, but maybe not by that much, and one of its great strengths is that this fairly manageable slice of time means that the filmmakers don't ever feel the need to start from scratch or have anyone undergo a massive change. It lets one get a general idea what it's like to live in this sort of decaying town, and let the cast be generally authentic rather than getting tripped up on too many specifics. Jessica Barden is in nearly every scene and the audience gets to know her Ruth fairly well even without some defining trauma to hang on her, smart and angry enough to push back but just trusting enough under the cynical posturing for betrayals to hurt (and to occasionally believe what people say about her). She and Gus Halper are well enough in sync to come across as siblings without having to do too much to underline it - the script has them in each other's business and they don't oversell - with Halper playing Blaze as maybe not quite as positioned for bigger things as Ruth but not self-martyring about it. Becky Ann Baker doesn't need a lot of explanation as the friend of their mother's who takes an interest, and Austin Amelio finds a level of capable scuzziness that makes Hark dangerous but not obviously villainous.

The downside of it being so slice-of-life is that there are times when it feels like Riegel could dig a lot deeper but the path she's chosen doesn't allow it. There's this big, obvious metaphor in how it seems like the only way to make a buck in this town is to tear everything that American industry left behind up and sell the Chinese; maybe it deserves a movie of its own, but given that the film eventually leans toward "Ruth has what it takes to get out", maybe it deserves a little more. The whole deal with Ruth applying to college is also the part of the story that seems unique enough to maybe be worth digging into her thought process a little - she does everything up to sending her application in, which Blaze does in secret, and she's apparently buying into how college won't teach her anything staying won't until she's not. There's potentially great material in how so many folks in the lower economic classes see higher education as something that, paradoxically, is both corrupting and something they're not worthy of. Heck, at one point it walks right up to her having to convince a teacher that she deserves this and then just skips that scene. The finale similarly has the feel of everything that needs to happen occurring and in the right order, but never actually making this feel inevitable or something only Ruth would think of.

For all those flaws, it's pretty darn good for a first feature. The 16mm cinematography by Dustin Lane looks great, really capturing the windy and gray winter when it takes place, especially when a fair amount of the action takes place at night. The story may be simple, but the pacing is good; time rolls forward at a measured clip but the film never bogs down, and Riegel is good at inserting pieces of other connected lives in a way that gives a fuller picture of what this family is up against without ever pulling away from Ruth. The detail is solid enough that the film can make up in immersion for what it maybe lacks in complexity.

Holler is a well-made movie, although it does make me wonder if it would be better if there were more like it. Only a handful of movies seem to be set in this portion of America each year, compared to the cities and the comfortable suburbs, and if there were more, maybe they would have to dig a little deeper than this one does.

Also at eFilmCritic

We're All Going to the World's Fair

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

There's a great movie to be made about the ground that this one covers, but I'm pretty sure that We're All Going to the World's Fair isn't it. It may be closer than I thought - for as much as I've dabbled in the sort of social-media storytelling that filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun is playing with, I've never been that engrossed. It's a younger person's game, after all. Still, I found myself remembering the feeling of watching The Collingswood Story back in 2005 - a prototype for the later "screen life" movies that hadn't quite figured out how to make it work yet - and wondering what the next movie that plays with this hook would do.

It starts out in internet urban legend territory, with teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) taking the "World's Fair Challenge" - saying "I want to go to the World's Fair" three times, offering up a bit of blood, and playing a video with a lot of strobing lights. Others who have taken it have disconnected from reality in some ways - feeling no pain, skin taking on a plasticine consistency, and the like - and Casey promises updates to her followers. One of them, JLB (Michael J Rogers) is older and seems not so much worried about kids playing with the supernatural, but plunging themselves so deeply into viral role-play scenarios that they can't get out.

That's a topic that merits a lot more examination in popular culture than it's getting, and not just in genre cinema - though for all JLB talks about teens, they're not the ones being taken in by QAnon. Even if the movie winds up in "they think it's a game but it's real" territory, that's still a neat hook, but the trouble here is, Schoenbrun doesn't do a whole lot to establish the idea. The "World's Fair" lore presented in the movie isn't built up to the level where it's interesting on its own, especially since the film spends so much of its time with Casey and JLB that there's not much context for what Casey's getting herself into if it's real. Schoenbrun never gives the audience enough that a sudden twist could have an effect, and Casey is an isolated-enough character whose biggest trait is that she likes horror stuff, so the slow burn itself doesn't have that much effect.

That's probably realistic, but there are times when realism isn't necessarily an asset. Anna Cobb and Michael J Rogers are both thoroughly believable in their respective roles, but the characters are enigmas out of necessity - Schoenbrun sometimes seems to be saving any juicy details for a twist that sort of fizzles when it comes - and neither their body language nor the various details add up into much. They seem fairly average, and this sort of horror movie or thriller needs something a bit more out of the ordinary. Everything gets played so straight that the big scene where the audience is supposed to gasp at something impossible in thoroughly grounded footage never actually feels uncanny.

Schoenfeld seems primed to offer something unique at the start, as the film opens with an extended shot from the POV of Casey's webcam, a nifty inversion of those screen life movies that maybe emphasizes things moving from on-line to the real world in a way that the live feeds don't. She seldom does much to follow up on the hints she drops, which is unfortunate, because they individually feel like they could lead to something. The finale gets at something about how teens and adults approach this sort of content on the internet - and each other - that works as a satisfying conclusion but is also frustrating, because she's got something to say here but has spent so much of the film playing coy and half-heartedly feinting toward a more conventional horror movie that it's frustrating that she doesn't just dive right into this stuff earlier.

At least, that's how it hit my middle-aged eyes; it's entirely possible that a teenager more immersed in this stuff is going to see it more clearly. Even if they do, I still wonder whether there's enough meat on the movie's bones to actually pull a viewer in and actually make them scared of anything going on.

Also at eFilmCritic

1 comment:

State (Remix) said...

Hello Jay,

My name is Mary Jane and I am working to promote State (Remix), a dark suspense film about a family, a murder, and a political conspiracy. It was written, directed, edited, and produced by first-time filmmaker Alain Nouvel. We were recently featured by

I am writing to you because we want to partner with different organizations to help promote the film and reach new audiences. We were especially excited by your engaging and in-depth film reviews.

Here is a synopsis of the film:

“An old man, alone and abandoned by his only living relative, haunted by his role in altering the course of American history, prepares to commit suicide. His grandson, a traumatized veteran on the edge, caught between memory and reality, is trying to reach his estranged girlfriend who doesn’t know that he’s back - or gone awol. In one last, desperate attempt he seeks her out, but at this point everything is a trigger.”

We are looking to set something up and maybe have the film reviewed. We can provide a screener link and press packet if you would like. Our instagram is @stateremix and our email is If you are interested in working with us, please let me know. 

Mary Jane