To describe We’re All Going to the World’s Fair as a darker, depressing Eighth Grade feels like a disservice to what Jane Schoenbrun has created with their feature debut: a movie which explores the internet’s attractiveness to alienated teens and adults alike. Yet, comparisons are simple, and words fail to encapsulate this atmospheric, experimental hidden gem.
Part coming-of-age story, part horror, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair follows chronically-online teenager Casey (Anna Cobb), who, in an attempt to deal with her loneliness, immerses herself in an online role-playing horror game named the World’s Fair. A newcomer to the internet craze, Casey watches videos of people transforming after playing the game — turning into plastic, sprouting wings, and the like — and begins to document the changes happening to her.
The movie begins with Casey alone in her cluttered attic bedroom, sitting in front of her laptop screen. “Hey guys, it’s Casey,” she tells the camera before trying again, “Hey guys, Casey here, today I’m gonna be taking the World’s Fair challenge.” Moving to set the scene — making her bed and turning off the lights to expose her glow-in-the-dark star stickers — she returns to her seat to repeat the words, “I want to go to the World’s Fair,” four times and prick her finger with a button pin. This act marks her initiation into the game and the beginning of her downfall.
Soon after, a montage gives viewers a glimpse into the kind of town Casey lives in: a nondescript nowhere town with shuttered shops and empty parking lots. People live here, but audiences don’t see them. Even Casey’s father is only ever heard offscreen. With nothing to do and no one to see, Casey resorts to her laptop, which provides her with some much-needed escapism.
She begins watching videos uploaded under the World’s Fair tag, and if she is horrified, she doesn’t show it, lying motionless on her bed as 2D people share their mental breakdowns and turn into plastic. Casey, too, starts to feel different, so she tells her camera perched on a tripod in the middle of the woods. “I know I should be cold right now, but I don’t feel anything,” she says — snow visible in the background. And with nothing out of the ordinary occurring so far, it’s hard to tell if this is a symptom of the World’s Fair or a metaphor for her state of mind.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair steps into horror territory when Casey receives a video message from World’s Fair veteran JLB (Michael Rogers), which shows her face distorted along with the words, “YOU ARE IN TROUBLE” and “I NEED TO TALK TO YOU.” Casey reaches out to JLB via Skype, and their relationship begins how it continues: with JLB “looking out” for Casey and Casey curious about who he is.
Their relationship is an unequal, if not problematic, one. JLB has access to Casey in a way that she doesn’t to him, as whilst she uses her camera on their calls — and viewers know he already watches her — JLB prefers to stay anonymous and uses a very creepy sketch as his profile picture instead of an actual photo. There is also the risk that JLB is a predator, as he is a middle-aged man talking to a teenage girl. However, the movie never confirms nor denies this, leaving it to viewers’ interpretation.
One thing is for sure: JLB is just as lonely as Casey. He, too, spends most of his time in his dark, cluttered bedroom, alone and watching other people’s videos. The difference is that he is older and by logic, wiser than Casey and can fiction from reality: something which Casey separates struggles to do. As her mental health declines and she begins experiencing the full effect of the World’s Fair, their relationship becomes fraught — and, incidentally, the most interesting thing about the movie.
Most people can relate to having an online relationship at some point in their lives. Whether they look back on them with horror or fondness (or a mixture of both), they served a purpose and probably left an impact. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair explores ambivalent online relationships, commenting on the internet at large as it does so.
Schoenbrun presents Casey and JLB’s relationship as both comforting and potentially dangerous, and portrays the internet in the same way. As they told Variety“It was important to me that [the movie] felt truthful to not just what’s scary or sad or dark about the internet, but what can be enticing and beautiful about the internet.” Schoenbrun — who is nonbinary — has contradictory opinions about the internet themself, as they explain in the same interview that as a young queer kid, they used the internet as a lifeline and was attracted to the safety it offered: “safety of anonymity, and the safety of creating a self or experimenting with various versions of self detangled from form and from an identity that I physical couldn’t control.” Equally, they acknowledge the dangers of the internet and even divulge their own past (confusing) online relationship with an older man.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair ends by reflecting on the horror of these relationships ending, and the unbearable uncertainty of knowing what happened to the other person involved. The takeaway is that the internet can only fill a void for so long before a person either moves on or goes mad.