“Its like I can feel myself leaving my body…like its making me someone else” – Casey (Anna Cobb)
A teenager’s attic bedroom. We are viewing it from the position of the computer. The room is bathed in moody coloured lightning. UV stickers decorate the ceiling, representing the night sky. An awkward teenage girl, Casey (A fantastic debut performance by Anna Cobb), addresses the camera, bathed in the blue light of the screen, as if she is introing a youtube video. She fluffes her lines several times. She begins recording and tells us that today she is going to take the “World’s Fair” challenge. She pricks her fingers and smears blood on the screen. She repeats
“I want to go to the world’s fair
I want to go to the world’s fair
I want to go to the world’s fair”
These are the opening moments of Jane Schoenbrun’s narrative debut We’re all going To The World’s Fair. Much like a previous film I reviewed, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, this film will resonate deeply with those of us who have spent late nights deep diving on creepypasta and ARG’s (Augment Reality Games for the unitiated) like ECKVA. More generally, it will connect with the “terminally online.” That is to say, those of us who have constructed part of our identities online, particularly trans people.
The film is both a coming of age film and certainly a type of horror film. The film follows Casey after she takes the titular challenge. Casey lives in a very sleepy seeming small town, a landscape of empty parking lots and quiet chain stores. We are given scant insight in to her life, but she seems to live a very isolated existence. Tellingly, we see many cars in the town but no people walking around during the day. The closest thing to a friend we are shown is her stuffed lemur. A father is heard offscreen but we get no insight into her family.
For the most part the film is presented in the “screenlife” format of films like Unfriended, Searching and the superior Host. That is to say the found footage style where the entire narrative is presented as if we are viewing it on a computer or smartphone screen. At one point Schoenbrun even includes the buffering symbol between segments. However it breaks from the format by presenting some scenes in a traditonal style, where we are not supposed to believe we are watching content the characters filmed. We have seen that others who took the challenge claim they begin to experience strange changeslike becoming impervious to pain, or bizzare body transformations. Already the film is obfusciating what is “real” in this context by including footage where the effects are clearly exaggerated or are presented as dramatic series. Is anyone really experiencing changes after taking the challenge? Or is this all part of a collective roleplaying experience?
Casey’s videos attract the attention of an older man named JLB (Michael Rogers, who played one of the leads in Panos Cosmatos’ debut Beyond The Black Rainbow). He reaches out to Casey via a creepy video. She calls him on skype but he hides his face, using a creepy drawing as his avatar. He warns her that she is in danger and tells her to keep making videos. As Casey continues to document her transformation her videos become more unhinged and worrying. She talks about feeling a sense of diassociation, saying that one day she will just dissapear. Cobb is stunning in these segments, breaking down during one brauvura unbroken long take that is genuinely unnerving. Schoenbrun is a self-professed David Lynch acolyte and, whilst I have used this comparison before, they evoke a Lynchian atmosphere of dread where the reason you are scared is unexplainable.
One of the strongest elements of the film is its ambiguity. When Casey watches JLB’s introductory videos he describes it as being “an in game chat”. To what extent as Casey’s videos become more worrying is she genuinely dissascoating and to what extent is she “playing along” with the game? Similarly is JLB’s concern for Casey purely benign or – given this is a much older man talking to a teen girl – is he grooming her? Certainly when JLB tells Casey that “I don’t really know you but I feel like I do” your internal nonce alarm is blaring. Schoenbrun shows us JLB’s face and homelife but is similarly vague on this character. In the background of one of his scenes we see what appears to be a woman carrying bags. Is this JLB’s…wife? Who knows? Rogers’ quiet, fantastic performace only adds to the sense of mystery.
The film features no scenes where two characters talk to each other whilst in the same physical space. The space where people meet is online, which after years of pandemic life, will be relatable to us all. The film is primarily a mood piece, and it perfectly captures that cold feeling of being on your own in a physical sense, but connecting with people in the ephemeral internet space. Director Schoenbrun is a non binary trans person, and began transitioning during the creation of the film. Schoenbrun themselves have argued that, whilst the film may feature no explicit trans character it articulates the feelings of the trans experience. This is apparent in Casey’s feeling of dissasociation from her own body and self, but the film also for me reflected the experience of being trans online.
When one reads through the trans subreddits you will see thread’s where people ask for people to use certain pronouns or names for them. They are either doing this to see how it would make them feel, or to alleviate dysphoria from how people percieve them in their day to day life. Friends online may use your new name or pronouns before family, co-workers or even friends. The online space can become a place where its easier to be your real self. because these people have no connection to your life outside of it.
In this instance your online life can feel more real than your existence in the physical space (this is of course a theme of essential trans text The Matrix). The film perfectly captures this weird contradiction in terms of online friendship and kinship. Anyone who has created identities or found themsleves online can relate to this, but in this instance I am speaking particularly from the trans experience.
This film has occupied space in my head rent free since I watched it. It is brilliant. I found it affecting and unnerving. As I have previously mentioned the performances are amazing, but the film also benefits greatly from the haunting, dreamy score by Alex G. With its mood and focus on an isolated teenage girl, it at points made me recall the German new wave film Der Fan.
This film won’t be for everyone. It’s deliberate “slow cinema” pacing in how scenes play out will cause many to say its “boring” or bemoan that it is “not a horror film” (an utterly empty criticism by the way), because they expected something more like the screenlife films I previously mentioned. I however found it hypnotic. Ultimately, if you are attuned to its wave length you will definitely want to take this trip to the world’s fair.
We’re All Going To The World’s Fair was released in Irish cinemas on 29th of April.