Isolation and identity are the themes Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair primarily explores. It’s a film about a young adolescent engaging in a horror game in the digital age, and the question that remains is, is any of it real? As I was watching the movie, I started to doubt whether the main protagonist’s name was Casey or not. It’s the kind of intriguing and mysterious elements that Schoenbrun’s movie dives into, especially whether what we see online is what happens in real life. There is no clear indication of why she participates in the game or reveals any information regarding her life. Everything is shrouded in this cloud of mystery, and we are meant to make assumptions about what is happening to her.
Casey (Anna Cobb, in her debut feature role) sits in front of her laptop, staring at the screen before she introduces herself and initiates the ritual to participate in the World’s Fair challenge. “I want to go to the World’s Fair,” she repeats three times, pricks her finger and stares at the screen as glowy lights illuminate her face. Casey occupies her time watching video footage of other participants’ experiences in the challenge and is convinced that she might display symptoms. She sometimes feels like she has out-of-body experiences. A mysterious stranger by the name of JLB (Michael J Rogers) contacts Casey as he is concerned about her. Through a Skype call, JLB asks Casey to record herself as she is sleeping or doing any other activity, just so that he can keep an eye on her. Casey records herself dancing to a song, and all of a sudden, she has a screaming fit but then continues to keep dancing as if nothing happened. These strange occurrences repeat throughout her daily vlogs, and as JLB surveils her, she becomes more mysterious and possibly, dangerous to herself.
The man behind the camera, concerned about Casey’s well-being, is a grown man. He spends his days watching video footage like her and does not interact with anyone. We see a glimpse of a woman who walks into the kitchen, but they do not interact. JLB’s identity is a mystery too, and does not provide any kind of details about his work or relationships. His desktop is crowded with notes, and one of the notes includes the date of somebody’s suicide. Perhaps, these were young adolescents who had played before and succumbed to the horrors of the game. Maybe JLB is one of the many people who participated in the challenge and was able to get out of it. There is no explanation for that, as we see Casey’s daily vlogs being viewed by JLB, or in this case, the audience.
This kind of unintentional mysterious storytelling is what makes World’s Fair a tense and riveting horror film. Even though it explores the complexities of a coming-of-age theme, there is a sense of dread waiting in the shadows. The movie gets under the skin of every viewer, as it demonstrates Casey’s dive into the technological world. Casey lives in isolation even in her own home. Her space is her attic bedroom which she lights with glow-in-the-dark stickers that light up her room. In one of the most haunting scenes, Casey applies glow-in-the-dark paint on her face and rips off her stuffed animal, which she has had ever since she was a child. Her behaviour changes, as she walks into the dark and emerges, totally a different person and indifferent to what had happened before.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a coming-of-age movie filled with haunting elements, and parallel to that is Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. Both World’s Fair and Eighth Grade deal with young girls who plug themselves into the digital world and the duality of their online personas. It teaches the harshness and loneliness of adolescence and trying to fit in and figure themselves out. World’s Fair may not be for everyone, but the mystery and anonymity of this movie manage to articulate differently for everyone. Cobb’s acting is riveting as she expresses Casey’s role-playing world’s deep, emotional intensity.
Certainly, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is depicted in many ways, but the movie itself is being watched and seen by the character and the audience. We are pushed into the world of Casey and JLB, loading and reloading videos back to back. It’s an ambiguous tale, and so are the characters. The movie takes inspiration from Paranormal Activity, Unfriended and Searching but the space around them is their own and no one inherits it.