Here’s what we learned from covering Sundance 2021: Virtual film festivals can be awkward, but it’s still an absolute rush to take an early peek at some of the most interesting films of the year. And unlike most other movie events, Sundance too invested heavily in virtual reality, allowing anyone with a VR headset to chat with other participants in a virtual space. And yes, you can bet we’ve had (and been through) a lot of VR experiences. There was so much going on, that’s almost all we talked about this week’s podcast. Below, check out a collection of the most notable movies and experiences we’ve come across on the show.
In 45 minutes, the VR Tinker Theater Experience showed me what it’s like to have a loved one battling Alzheimer’s disease. After mounting my Oculus Quest 2, I stepped into the role of a kind grandfather’s grandchild, played by improvised actor Randy Dixon. We talked a bit about my own life experiences, and then were transported to a virtual DIY store, where I was reduced to the size of a toddler as my virtual grandpa towered over me. I played with toys on the floor like my own 2 year old and watched in wonder as Grandpa explained the mysteries of the world.
With the passage of each scene, I got a little older, it got a little slower and the venue evolved to meet our growing interests. Simple toys have been replaced by an RC car and some serious electronic equipment. I could trace our relationship with the map on the wall, which indicated wherever we had traveled across the United States. The whole experience was a bit confusing at first, especially since there was an audience watching our performance, and I assumed to judge my viability as a virtual grandchild.
As I approached 18 in the game, I could tell Grandpa had memory issues. And by the time I got into my twenties, he must have posted little notes all over the office to remind him of the most basic tasks. He started to forget about our travels and the things we had discussed in the previous scenes. And my heart sank when I realized our roles were swapping a bit – I had to help Grandpa find his pills and play his voicemail messages.
Thankfully, director Lou Ward spared me any Pixar dramatic ending. But as we said goodbye in the virtual attic, I couldn’t help but feel like I was leaving someone I had known for more than a few minutes. This is a testament to Dixon’s competence as an actor, but also to the ability of virtual reality to transform us completely. If I had had a similar experience in live action, without the height perspective change and rapid scene changes possible with VR, I probably wouldn’t have been so affected. – Devindra Hardawar
We all go to the World’s Fair
We all go to the World’s Fair unfolds like a horror movie. The first 10 minutes are a slow, deliberate run through a series of horror movie tropes – ritual bleeding, a creepy mantra, a mysterious video – all of which are meant to provide access to some sort of horror ARG. A young girl watches the barrel of a webcam as she does these things in the dark silence of a child’s room. His room. It’s troubling. (Actually, I physically stepped back from the screen.)
The “World’s Fair Challenge” in which Casey participates is a kind of terrifying pasta crazy of joy. People are supposed to do the routine she goes through at the top of the movie and then report their symptoms as the evil power they unleashed changes their bodies. (One person turns to plastic, another hallucinates while playing Tetris in his stomach.)
Surprise: the changes in question are a metaphor for puberty.
World exhibition is above all a coming-of-age story about an isolated and lonely young girl. She lives with a father she barely speaks to (and whom we never see on screen), is never shown interacting with children her age, and who in a desperate attempt to connect. with someone – anyone, constantly downloads videos of herself from the Internet. (who get at most a few dozen views). It’s these self-shot clips that are our main take on Casey’s life. Not only does this advance the plot, but it also provides a larger context on the World’s Fair Challenge. (However, not always to the benefit of the film.)
What is striking is that unlike most other films to come, World exhibition does not relate to Casey’s sexual arousal. In fact, the film does everything possible to avoid sexualizing her. Instead, it’s about his internal struggles with identity and belonging.
The only other character you get to know is a mysterious man known as JLB who reaches out to Casey because he fears the World’s Fair Challenge will put her in danger. As Casey and JLB’s relationship evolves, many more traditional horror elements begin to fade into the background. His true motives are never explicitly stated, but the obvious grooming techniques he uses suggest that they are not noble.
In fact, the film generally avoids too many concrete answers. And this ambiguity is a strength. Is Casey really experiencing the symptoms she claims in the movie? Do clips from other people who took the challenge suggest it’s real? Even the end of the film is largely ambiguous.
We all go to the World’s Fair is charmingly around the edges. There is no steadicam or cart footage. It is a true independent cinema produced on a limited budget. He is carried by the strength of his ideas, the performances, the excellent soundtrack of Alex G, and his innovative use of internet horror and tropes. – Terrence O’Brien
4ft tall RV
VR and immersive video have often been considered particularly effective way to discover unique perspectives. When you are placed in the position of someone different from you and you experience the world from their perspective, you can learn a lot more about the challenges they face. But often filmmakers who create 360-degree videos tend to focus more on the medium itself than the story.
Unfortunately it was my experience with 4ft tall RV. I was drawn to the project, which promised to be an insightful look into the life of young wheelchair user Juana as she explored her sexuality. It is an important topic and a topic that too often people hesitate to discuss. Although 4 feet high was at the heart an illuminating look at Juana’s life and journey, I had to struggle with a lot of distractions to focus on the story. One scene in particular made it difficult for me to follow the conversation because I had to keep turning to read the subtitles next to each character’s head.
I wasn’t even watching the scenes unfold from Juana’s point of view for this scene, so the fact that I had to keep looking around didn’t have much to do with imbuing the viewer with a feeling of sympathy and more of a technological flex that hurt the story.
Unfortunately, despite its impressive quality (the video is smooth and high resolution, excellent) and its technological capability, 4 feet high ultimately does not fulfill its potential. I understand the temptation to make full use of medium like 360-degree video, but I would like storytellers to focus on telling a story instead of just dressing it up. – Cherlynn Low