“Schoenbrun has crafted an artful horror film debut that feels relevant to the times we’re in, understanding how loneliness can lead to a desperation to find solace and community in digital spaces.”
If you’re of an age where you practically grew up on the internet, it’s difficult to imagine who you would be or how people would perceive you if you didn’t have an online presence. Writer and Director Jane Schoenbrun explores this concept of identity being intrinsically linked to the internet by delving into the darker, more unsettling corners of it in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, their debut feature film. Filmed in the midst of the pandemic in 2020, Schoenbrun and collaborators utilize vlog-style footage, Skype calls, and handheld camera work to emulate the feeling of falling down a rabbit hole of Youtube videos, Creepypasta, and conspiracy theories late at night.
We experience this through the lens of Casey (Anna Cobb, in her debut film role), a teenager on the outside-looking-in, quietly desperate to be seen while isolated in suburbia. She begins to participate in an online horror roleplaying game called The World’s Fair Challenge, in which participants must document themselves drawing blood and watching a strobing video of lights and colors, and report back on what side effects they later feel. According to the lore behind the challenge and the videos players post online, the horror of the induction into The World’s Fair begins to consume their minds and bodies, manifesting in all different ways.
Casey documents herself in short, daily vlogs, using odd hours of the night to share her observations and admit increasingly darker thoughts to the void of the internet. A fellow player by the name of JLB (Michael J Rogers) reaches out when he finds her videos, offering her guidance behind the veil of a disturbingly drawn profile picture and the anonymity of being a mere breathy voice over Skype. He is seemingly the only one to interact with Casey’s content, urging her to continue making videos so he knows she’s alive and okay.
Cobb is a striking talent to look out for, carefully balancing the dynamic between the endearingly innocent core of the character with the quiet malice brewing and bubbling at the surface. She leans into what feels natural and real, while still being keenly tuned in to the distorted reality that is gnawing at Casey’s existence. At times, it’s difficult to tell whether Casey is truly affected by the challenge or falling deeper into the roleplay. The film brilliantly blurs the lines of what’s real or fabricated by weaving in videos of players experiencing phenomena that varies from shifting personalities to grotesque body horror. It seems impossible to know whether or not any of what we are seeing is actually occurring, or if the players – including Casey – are startlingly good at playing the game.
With We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, Schoenbrun has crafted an artful horror film debut that feels relevant to the times we’re in, understanding how loneliness can lead to a desperation to find solace and community in digital spaces that will always ask more of us.
Dir: Jane Schoenbrun
Prod: Sarah Winshall
Cast: Anna Cobb and Michael J Rogers
Release Date: 2021
Header image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival