A Creepy Internet Fable Has Timely Resonance in 'We're All Going to the World's Fair' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

On Screen » Movie+TV Reviews

A Creepy Internet Fable Has Timely Resonance in 'We're All Going to the World's Fair'

By

Published June 15, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Cobb plays a teen with a disturbing fixation on an online legend in Schoenbrun's timely art-house drama. - COURTESY OF UTOPIA
  • Courtesy Of Utopia
  • Cobb plays a teen with a disturbing fixation on an online legend in Schoenbrun's timely art-house drama.

Sometimes, particularly during the pandemic era, a movie makes a splash at some prominent film festival and then disappears. I first heard about We're All Going to the World's Fair in reports from the virtual Sundance Film Festival in January 2021, but the movie wasn't released until April 2022, and then only in three U.S. theaters. Directed, written and edited by Jane Schoenbrun, this creepy art-house drama about a teen transfixed by an online legend is currently available to rent on various platforms. Expect to see it on HBO Max in the future.

The deal

Alone in her attic bedroom, teenage Casey (Anna Cobb) turns on her laptop's camera and announces to an invisible audience that she is taking the "world's fair challenge." She follows the steps of a ritual: repeating the words "I want to go to the world's fair," smearing her own blood on the screen and watching a trancey video. Then she sits back and waits to undergo a transformation, promising to document it for her viewers.

But what kind of transformation? Casey watches videos in which other challenge participants describe feeling numb or alienated from their bodies. A fan of the Paranormal Activity franchise, she envisions a demon waking inside her while she sleeps. She sets up a camera by her bed, hoping to film its emergence.

Casey's videos draw the attention of JLB (Michael J Rogers), a mysterious user who tells her she is "in trouble" and offers to guide her through the perils of the world's fair. But what does he really want? And is she actually in danger?

Will you like it?

Publicity materials call We're All Going to the World's Fair a horror film, but it isn't, except in the loose sense of inducing free-floating dread. Rather than depict its creepy meme as a literal truth, the movie takes a long, hard look at the phenomenon of online legends and the people who gravitate to them.

We learn everything we know about the world's fair challenge the same way Casey does: from videos served up by the algorithm of a YouTube-like platform. One clip purports to show rare footage from a 1994 video game that gave birth to the legend — making world's fair reminiscent of Polybius, a supposed deadly 1980s arcade game that probably never existed. Such legends rarely hold water, but that doesn't make them any less powerful. Supernatural stalker Slender Man, for instance, began as a photographer's fabrication, yet he inspired a real-life stabbing and other violent acts.

Every such mythos has a range of fans, from those who enjoy it as a creative hoax to those who take it in deadly earnest. JLB, we gradually learn, is one of the former: World's fair is a pastime for him. Tellingly, one of the stickies on his computer links the challenge to various conspiracy theories, including one that has had plenty of real-life fallout: QAnon.

Young and vulnerable, Casey takes world's fair more seriously than does JLB, but how seriously? That's the question on which the film pivots: Is Casey faking the symptoms of demonic possession for clout? ("Thirty-two views," she mutters, frustrated by the poor performance of her early videos.) Or does she really believe that the challenge is transforming her?

While the movie's pace is glacially slow, Cobb's mesmerizing performance gives it forward momentum. Casey's dread as she approaches the challenge feels genuine, as do her loneliness and primal need for a mother figure, which she finds in a soothing narrator of ASMR videos. Her "possession," by contrast, is clearly a role she's playing but a role with emotional truth behind it. When she interrupts a lip-sync performance with a bloodcurdling scream, it's both a cringingly obvious attempt to go viral and a real cry for help.

Schoenbrun withholds the catharsis and resolution that viewers are likely to seek from the film. One angry user review notes that We're All Going to the World's Fair even breaks the cardinal rule called "Chekhov's gun" (i.e., don't put a gun in your drama if no one's going to fire it).

But you don't expect dramatic resolution from an endless stream of online videos, either, and that's kind of the point. Narratives such as QAnon draw their power from their looping, infinitely expansive quality. The ever-shifting relationship between Casey and JLB, two people who never come face-to-face, emblematizes much larger conflicts between generations and belief systems. JLB believes in a clear-cut difference between fiction and reality, even if he spends his time spinning fictions. In Casey's mind, the line is much fuzzier — and that fuzziness could have real consequences for all of us.

If you like this, try...

Pulse (2001; Kanopy, Pluto TV, Vudu, Tubi, rentable): Kiyoshi Kurosawa may have made the first horror film about a supernatural contagion that spreads online, setting a template for urban legends to come.

The Den (2013; AMC+, IFC Films Unlimited): For a more typical horror movie with an online setting, check out this creepy story of a web-chat researcher who witnesses a murder, from Vermont-raised director Zachary Donohue.

Eighth Grade (2018; Showtime, rentable): Bo Burnham's debut is another bone-chilling exploration of what can happen when a lonely kid searches for her identity online. The director's one-man special shot during lockdown, Bo Burnham: Inside (2021; Netflix), is equally worth watching for its alternately hilarious and disturbing insights into online culture.