By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Starring Anna Cobb and Michael J. Rogers
Written and Directed by Jane Schoenbrun
Dweck Productions/ Flies Collective
In these strange times, it is difficult to not project all of our issues onto the screen and bend the media we consume to be a reflection of our own struggles. Heck, this is something we do even in the best of times, but with a global pandemic and necessary social distance, our collective emotional environment is hard to ignore. WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR feels like the perfect complement to this global isolation and yearning for connection, however its sinister turns and ambiguous stakes are uniquely its own.
The film focuses nearly entirely on a young teenaged Casey (newcomer Anna Cobb). She starts the film by taking the “World’s Fair Challenge” which seems to be an online version of Bloody Mary, with a similar initiation. She says “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times into her computer’s camera, smears blood on her screen, and then waits for life to get interesting.
It is the promise of a more interesting life that seems to be the draw for Casey. While she seems to be a normal enough kid, we never once see her interact with anyone else in person. We see her run from the sound of her father getting home at night, and we see her sink herself into watching hours of videos online to research the potential effects of the World’s Fair challenge, but aside from that she is always on her own. That is, until she is contacted by JLB (Michael J. Rogers).
You see, the World’s Fair is not just an internet legend, it is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), where people take the challenge and then upload their own videos of the creepy ways it has affected their lives. JLB is another player who seems to be quite concerned about Casey after seeing a few of her unsettling video submissions. Though he comes across as kind and encouraging, there is still an overlying coat of ickiness in his affection for this young internet stranger.
It is this ambiguity which drives much of the concern and fear throughout WORLD’S FAIR. Much like it is unclear what JLB’s true intentions are, it is unclear how aware Casey is of his potentially predatory nature, as well as how much she understands whether or not this game is real. We would like to believe she is a smart girl who is more autonomous than she lets on, but without any real evidence to support one representation or the other, our concern for her well being amplifies with each video upload.
Writer/director Jane Schoenbrun deftly leaves this uncertainty on the screen as well, allowing the audience to wallow in imprecision and nebulous tension. To craft such a tale of Schrödinger’s horror without losing, alienating, or upsetting us is an impressive trick to pull off, especially for a first narrative film director.
“WE ARE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR asks far more questions than it answers.”
Another impressive aspect of WORLD’S FAIR is the visual language of the film. Many of the scenes, especially Casey’s videos and her online chats with JLB, are seen through just the screen uploads, but we are never watching all of this as if it is a screen-life or found-footage film. We get to see the videos, but we also get to see Casey watching the videos, walking around town, and even a peek into JLB’s offline life as well. Screens represent a huge proportion of both of their lives, but we are not limited to the same experience in seeing these lives.
All of this would be a useless exercise were it not for Cobb carrying the vast majority of the film. So much of the running time is squarely focused on her face as she interacts with this world of videos and distant connections. Whether it be her uploaded confessions or watching her try to sleep we spend nearly every minute with this young teen and all of her online angst and performative persona. Cobb truly sells us on Casey being a girl who contains multitudes. Plainly put, her ability to keep us guessing makes the film what it is, and it is good.
WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR asks far more questions than it answers. It is a film that understands unease in the ambiguous, and teases certainty to toy with the audience. It is a non-traditional horror film, with no clear monster or victor, but it will also leave you feeling queasy and unwell. If that isn’t the mark of an effective movie, I don’t know what is.