From the moment young Casey (Anna Cobb in a captivating debut performance) stares directly into her webcam – which, in turn, means her view is focused solely on us as inescapable viewers – and states “I want to go to the world’s fair”, all the while puncturing her thumb and smearing the bloodied tip across her screen, it’s all too obvious that Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair will be anything other than a straightforward journey.
Her aforementioned statement has an almost Candyman-like mythology to it, with the general internet-spread rumour collating that those that have stated as such have seen their mental state deteriorate; and because, you know, no youngen can get through their day without posting about it, proof of their altered state is posted for the masses to witness. Casey, perennially an outsider, welcomes this horror lore (“because it would be fun”, is her view on the matter), seemingly awaiting her potentially brutal fate with wide-eyes and open arms.
What that fate will be is unknown as every other player who has “gone to the world’s fair” – an online role-playing game with a dedicated fan base – has suffered different reactions; sequences displayed throughout the film show these varying results, with some claiming to feel possessed, others claiming odd sensations within their body, some even swallowed whole by the computer itself. It’s these types of small moments that suggest Schoenbrun may lean into something more traditional throughout, but We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a slow (sometimes monotonously so) and visceral drama that speaks more to the loneliness of adolescence and the dangerous relationship we have with the internet over a horror-fuelled game that may, or may not, be victimising its players.
Aside from an aural-only appearance of her presumably single father yelling at her to stay quiet after hours, we aren’t privy to any of the people Casey has in her life, if she has anyone to begin with. There are no friends to which she alludes to, and in one of the film’s more heart-breaking moments she utilises an online ASMR video to help soothe her enough to go to sleep; though this video also does just enough to maintain the unnerving atmosphere so much of the film’s 86 minute running time adheres to.
The only contact Schoenbrun allows Casey to indulge in is with an account dubbed JLB (Michael J. Rogers), an initially faceless man behind a black-and-white drawn avatar who sends Casey alarming messages in the hopes of nabbing her attention enough to relay his genuine concern for her. In quite an unexpected move, the curtain is lifted up on JLB and we see the rather lonely figure hiding behind the drawings. There’s a certain fear instilled in us that he could be possibly grooming the young Casey, but Schoenbrun is also wise enough to not entirely lace the film with such scepticism, hinting that he genuinely wishes to help Casey should she fall victim to whatever horrors the World’s Fair has in store for her; in arguably the film’s most haunting scene, JLB watches video of Casey sleeping and witnesses a mid-slumber act that leans into the violent, unpredictable change that may be taking over her psyche.
Whilst there’s no denying that We’re All Going to the World’s Fair succeeds at creeping its audience out when need be, it’s far from the terrifying ordeal some have suggested it is. This is a more dramatic, character-driven piece about the blurred lines of reality and virtual and the danger of power that comes with an online persona. Cobb’s performance is nothing short of dedicated magnificence though, disappearing into the melancholic and the macabre in equal measure throughout, continually elevating a film with a premise stronger than its play.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair will be available to rent or own across digital platforms (AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft Store) from May 11th, 2022.