There’s something bracing about encountering a genuine oddity like We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, a truly hand-crafted bit of regional, DIY filmmaking that bends and breaks narrative rules to suit its own deeply unnerving agenda. Something of an offshoot of the burgeoning “desktop” horror flick (think Unfriended or the more recent Zoom horror of Host) We’re All Going to the World’s Fair isn’t limited to a laptop interface; instead, it freely mingles the ontological qualities of a variety of internet ephemera — loading screens, time/date stamps, creepypasta, YouTube, ASMR — alongside adolescent angst and the general unease of having reality mediated at all times by the internet. Directed, written, and edited by Jane Schoenbrun, the film details the agitated mental state of teenager Casey (newcomer Anna Cobb, delivering a remarkable performance) as she embarks on a game of “World’s Fair,” an online horror phenomenon that involves repeating an incantation and smearing a bit of blood across a computer monitor. Convinced that the game is real and that it is slowly changing her in unknown ways, which is what the surrounding urban legend and documentation from other players suggest, Casey begins recording herself at night and posting the videos to her YouTube channel. She’s eventually approached by JLB (Michael Rogers), an anonymous entity who tells her she is in danger and who seems to have special insight into her transformation.
Schoenbrun shoots large swathes of World’s Fair with the audience fixed in the place of Casey’s YouTube viewers, creating the disorienting effect of the film’s actual audience becoming a hypothetical fictional audience, all while Casey stares straight back at us. It’s a fascinating way to complicate modes of identification, while also implicating the audience in Casey’s gradual deterioration. JLB’s motivations are murky, and while we see his face, Casey doesn’t, only interacting with his online avatar. There’s an overwhelming sense of ennui at work throughout the film, as Schoenbrun and cinematographer Daniel Patrick Carbone embrace the chunky pixelation and murky blacks of low-grade digital cameras. There are images here that approach the nightmarish visages of Francis Bacon, or even Lynch’s Inland Empire, as well as some bits of low-key body horror and a disconcerting sense that some kind of impending violence is inevitable. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair isn’t really a horror film, despite some nods to Paranormal Activity, but it is terrifying as it dives deep into the darkest recesses of internet cognitive dissonance, that sense of total isolation even amidst perpetual connection. The film isn’t without a few missteps, including some odd, outre bits that play like remnants of miscellaneous short films and which interrupt the hypnotic spell of the main narrative, but there’s no denying the otherwise bold achievement of We’re Going to the World’s Fair and its heralding of an exciting talent in Schoenbrun.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.