“An unnerving, painstakingly observant story about trying to find a real connection or personal realization through the uncanny mists of the internet.”
by Ken Bakely
It’s never entirely clear what’s going on in Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair – and this is a good thing. This is an arresting film about alienation and isolation, filtered through the internet, which approximates interaction in a way that is intense and palpable all its own while still remaining elusive and hard to compartmentalize. We’re acutely aware of how people can perform online, and in this movie, the lines between perception and understanding remain perpetually unclear. Schoenbrun, in an assured and atmospheric feature debut, understands this – the grand strokes of the internet and the tiniest details, peppered liberally throughout. This is a story honed and sharpened in the deepest recesses of internet culture, which we learn from the opening scenes, when Casey (Anna Cobb), a teenage girl, decides to take the World’s Fair Challenge. Recite a trigger phrase thrice (“I want to go to the world’s fair”), perform a small blood ritual, and as the story goes, one slowly begins losing control of their lives in subtle, gradual ways. She watches videos of people who have apparently descended into complete delusion over it – one person claims they feel as if their body has turned to plastic – and she has decided to join them, documenting in full whatever might come next.
Such folklore exists everywhere online, and it’s easy to ignore them as the contemporary iteration of friend-of-a-friend urban legend, repeated ad nauseum with no clear origin, and obviously no evidence. But what does it mean for someone to truly plunge themselves into the mythos, and seek its most harrowing possibilities? The facts of Casey’s offline life are secondary – either hinted at or only described without her input – and thus, the film is all about the crafting of her life within the confines of the World’s Fair Challenge. We don’t ever get to know her outside of this context, which, considering this, makes Cobb’s performance all the more startlingly good: as we see what happens to Casey through the twists and turns of the challenge’s supposed control over her, she must live in vulnerable spaces of unclear autonomy and control as an actor, falling into the liminal space between consciously assuming a performed loss for the character’s online audience and something a lot more frighteningly open-ended. The only other person she establishes contact with is the pseudonymous JLB (Michael J. Rogers), an older man with whom she strikes up an online friendship over her videos, expressing mixed reactions. Like her, we don’t know exactly what his deal is nor what his real intentions are – and though we eventually see and hear more from his conscious perspective than we do with Casey’s, many questions remain unanswered.
There is so much loneliness to this movie. It aches. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is not a horror movie in some conventional sense, and there’s no point where the story turns and we really feel that something has gone off the rails, but it does live in a headspace of quiet dread and simmering discontent, all borne from a sense of emptiness. This is an unnerving, painstakingly observant story about trying to find a real connection or personal realization through the uncanny mists of the internet, which are at once so distant and so immediate. Schoenbrun understands the quietly absorbing nature of being online – more than a great many filmmakers have been able to – namely, in the sense that for Casey, the internet is not a separate function of her offline life; it’s all apiece in a continuous flow, without boundaries. While perhaps destined to feel like more of a tone piece than any more firm declaration, this movie still feels so direct and visceral, capturing with uncanny precision the world it emulates and navigates. Though it’s never a character study, as it operates at enough of an arms length in proving its point that such actualization through these uneasy, virtual dynamics remains an illusion, always on the margins. With that in mind, the title takes on new meaning. The phrase is not an observation on the events of the movie – perhaps it’s an observation for the viewer.