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Writer/director Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to The World’s Fair is a study of adolescent loneliness wrapped in the skin of a genre film. Digging into the world of online lore (think Creepypasta) to capture the milieu of many chronically online teens, Schoenbrun creates an unsettling coming of age story for the internet generation.
Casey (newcomer Anna Cobb) records herself and posts her online videos to a handful of followers. She decides she is going to join an internet horror challenge dubbed ‘The World’s Fair.’ The ritual involves her staring into the computer’s camera, pricking her finger to draw blood, and reciting “I want to go to The World’s Fair” three times. A video (which the audience doesn’t see as the computer’s camera rests squarely on Casey’s face) plays and once it is over Casey announces that she will monitor herself for any changes.
The tradition of the game is that something horrific will happen to the player at some point. Casey watches videos of players claiming everything from the feeling that they have lost all feeling in their body to (through the work of some extreme filtering) claiming they are turning into plastic. Through the film Schoenbrun also shows videos of players not on Casey’s screen who meet some very Cronenbergian fates. Thus the premise is set that the game may indeed have some real-world ramifications, and something might actually be happening to Casey beyond the bounds of reason.
Casey is contacted by a stranger known as JLB (Michael J Rogers) whose avatar links to the horror theme of the game. He claims Casey is in real trouble and begs her to keep filming herself. The very real fear is that JLB who is revealed to be a middle-aged man may be trying to groom the teenage girl. However, for the canny viewers who watch where JLB communicates with Casey, there is something darker but more innocent driving his obsession.
Casey’s real life is one of isolation. Living in a non-descript town with no real-life community, it isn’t surprising that Casey seeks out something to take her out of reality. Casey’s father is simply a voice in the background that screams at her for making too much noise late at night. She settles herself with ASMR videos of a stranger willing her to sleep peacefully after a nightmare. There is little in Casey’s real world to keep her tethered to a healthy reality so she chooses what little community she can find online.
For people searching for a horror film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair will probably disappoint. Certainly there are moments that qualify as horror and Schoenbrun keeps the psychological tension up with Casey’s increasingly unhinged videos. Anna Cobb is perfectly cast as an every-girl for whom the internet is a source of community and comfort and as such her descent (real or otherwise) into mania is deeply effective.
Schoenbrun in collaboration with cinematographer Daniel Patrick Carbone cleverly disguises the low budget aspect of the film by using the technology of webcams and phone cameras to capture most of the action. Using these tools is an effective way of immersing the audience into the online world and creates an authenticity to how we see Casey. It also reminds the audience that in the very act of watching another – the essential key to cinema – we too are voyeurs and invested in the outcome of the characters we watch. In this case we are Casey’s followers.
We’re All Going to The World’s Fair is a strikingly original film that for the most part leans heavily into its genre ambiguity to tell a story that is more grounded in the reality of the contemporary teen experience. Its main strength is the believability of Cobb as Casey. Her face, our focal point, is perfect for expressing everything from intense vulnerability to burgeoning psychopathy. Although Schoenbrun eventually wraps the film up in too neat a package, the majority of We’re All Going to The World’s Fair will unsettle and pleasantly confound.
Director: Jane Schoenbrun
Cast: Anna Cobb, Holly Anne Frink, Michael J Rogers
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