(director/writer: Jane Schoenbrun; cinematographer: Daniel Patrick Carbone; editor: Jane Schoenbrun; music:Alex G.; cast: Anna Cobb (Casey), Michael J. Rogers. (JLB); Runtime:86; MPAA Rating: NR; producers; Sarah Winshall, Carlos Zozaya, Abby Harri: Utopia; 2021)

“Has bizarre visuals.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jane Schoenbrun’s first narrative feature has bizarre visuals and all kinds of internet slang, as the tech savvy writer-director includes a plethora of webcam and smartphone usage to her modern-day horror pic. More interested in having a disturbing narrative then a straightforward one, the film succeeds in making the viewer feel uneasy about the real horrors of today it depicts.

Ms. Schoenbrun previously made the 2018 documentary A Self-Induced Hallucination, which centered around a collage of weird YouTube clips.

The intense and innovative film owes a lot to the same kind of themed films such as Unfriended and The Den.

It’s set in an unnamed rural town in America, in the attic bedroom, where the withdrawn loner female teen Casey (Anna Cobb) makes videos that receive very few hits on You Tube. Anna brings her camera everywhere, even when walking alone in the woods. The only person Anna directly addresses is another lonely person, an adult man called JLB (Michael J. Rogers), whom she meets over Skype. Both their names are probably fictional, used most likely only for internet user names.

Casey is currently tuned into an online role-playing game “World’s Fair Challenge,” called for short RPG, that’s used for self-exploration. To enter the game she must prick her finger and wipe the blood onto her computer monitor while repeating the phrase, “I want to go to the world’s fair,” three times into her webcam before starting a seizure-inducing strobe-lit video. She’s taking the “World’s Fair Challenge,” which, according to online urban legend, brings unimaginable “changes” to the player, a fate that she promises to document via video updates to her YouTube channel.

In today’s ever-changing tech heavy world, too many teens don’t mingle much with their peers but prefer being alone on their computers, phones and tablets for lengthy periods. The problem here is that teen users in their searches for identity sometimes go down rabbit holes that some can easily get lost in while looking for things they can’t be sure of finding.

This strange film is about such strange things. Our vulnerable heroine searches intently to find her identity via these games instead of through the old-fashioned but safer way kids used to always go about finding themselves in the pre-internet days.

When in the game, Anna gradually gets angrier and more introspective, as we see the screen carry scenes of puberty that will revolve around young love and social conflict. Casey’s journey is internal and dangerous, and if she is in some kind of danger zone there’s no one to save her.

Her father, who is never seen on screen, is avoided by her as if he did something bad to her. The stranger adult JLB she communicates with on the screen, becomes the closest person she has for a parent.

There’s a terrifying scene, where Casey covers her face in glow-in-the-dark paint and destroys her favorite childhood toy. Her voice changes from menacing to remorseful as she returns to reality and her own physical body, and is out of the danger zone.

The film is delivered at a disturbingly slow pace, but is filled with real scares that resonate. The musical score by indie artist Alex G. finely complements the grave scenario.

To the film’s credit, it lets us know that its OK not to know everything, it’s good to search within for knowledge and that it’s invaluable to learn how to relax. But it also warn the teens that it’s safer to have a teacher (or guide) along on your trip that you trust to advice you when you land in areas you can’t deal with on your own.