We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a portrait of loneliness & explores how discovering an online community can alleviate or exacerbate isolation.
When working with limited resources, filmmakers can either treat that as an obstacle to overcome — whether by maximizing budget enough that viewers don’t notice, or flashing enough talent that viewers don’t care — or as a guiding principle. Some movies, like Searching or The Blair Witch Project, succeed in part because they accept their limitations and tell a story that doesn’t feel like it could’ve been better told with more money behind it. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, the fiction-feature debut of writer-director Jane Schoenbrun, is the latest entry into this canon. Since its debut at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, it has been referred to as the first creepypasta horror movie, though whether one experiences it as horror is very much a matter of perspective. Intelligently crafted and delicately performed, We’re All Going to the World‘s Fair is fundamentally a portrait of loneliness, and explores how discovering an online community can alleviate, or exacerbate, a person’s feelings of isolation.
The film opens with teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) filming her initiation ritual for the World’s Fair Challenge, supposedly the internet’s scariest role-playing game. After repeating a phrase three times, pricking her finger and smearing blood across her computer screen, and watching a specific video, she has invited in a malevolent force that will begin to change her, and she is meant to document these changes in a series of YouTube videos. She watches a few uploads from other players and sees them mention a loss of feeling in their bodies, so she starts there. She films a confessional in the snowy woods outside her home without a jacket, claiming not to notice the cold. When she starts to feel discouraged about playing along at all, she receives a message from JLB (Michael J. Rodgers), another player who encourages her to keep going. But as her videos grow increasingly worrying, it becomes unclear just how much of her experience is an act.
That certainly sounds like a horror premise, and it is; but it also, in some key ways, isn’t. Much of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is captured through a screen, filmed as if from the webcams that Casey uses to record herself. YouTube videos from other players are also sprinkled in throughout. Occasionally, particularly in the early scenes, a non-diegetic camera follows the movie’s protagonist, and the distinction in this film is vital. The videos Casey makes and watches are performative, individual expressions of what is a communal game. Each is made with the intent to frighten (and impress) the other players. Schoenbrun’s floating camera, however, captures something real and private. Casey and JBL are virtually always alone in these moments, with no one around to keep up appearances for. Before she properly commits to the World’s Fair Challenge, the viewer gets to see the protagonist’s trepidation, dejection, and desire for some form of human connection. As what she films becomes the predominant focus, this access is lost, leaving the audience to interpret what she has chosen to share with the public.
This is a particular strength of Schoenbrun’s movie, and the reason why one’s classification of it may vary. Even as they are designed to disturb in some (often endearingly low-tech) way, there is a joyful quality to the World’s Fair Challenge videos, a sense of participation and community. There is an equal opportunity here for a feeling of creeping dread, as Casey shows signs of real distress, perhaps with the potential to become harmful to herself or others. The central question is one of sincerity, something that We’re All Going to the World’s Fair insightfully identifies at the heart of all forms of online interaction. With so much of internet culture soaked in irony, in a desire to push buttons in the ways everyone knows will be most effective, how can viewers be sure that inspiring fear for her was not Casey’s intent?
When JBL, an older man who hides his face from her, reaches out, is it innocently part of the role-playing game? Is it out of a benevolent concern for a young person struggling with loneliness? Is it manipulative, or even predatory? The audience cannot know for sure . Even the conclusion, which many may be inclined to take at face-value, is shrouded in the same doubt. Cobb’s deeply empathetic performance deserves a lot of credit here, as the blurred line between reality and fiction wouldn’t be possible if the viewer could see her acting in those moments when Casey is just being herself. In this sense, Schoenbrun’s film is as likely to be chilling as touching, which is quite a unique achievement. It might require a willingness to fall in step with its rhythm, but if there’s one thing anyone who sees We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is sure to come away feeling, it’s impressed.
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We’re All Going to the World’s Fair opened in limited theater release on April 15 and will expand nationwide and be available on digital platforms on April 22. The film is 86 minutes long and is not rated.
- We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)Release date: Apr 16, 2022
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