If you’ve been following the coverage of this year’s all-digital Sundance film festival, there’s a very good chance that by the time you read this review, you’ll have already seen some version of the image above from Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.
Whether this is by design is an interesting question to consider as you settle into the movie’s story about Casey (Anna Cobb), a teenage girl coming into different parts of herself that exist online and off. Though We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’s only promotional image seemingly says little about the horrors that come into Casey’s life, that specific shot of her staring into a webcam is one of the most striking, unnerving ways the movie urges you to see how everything unfolding on the screen is more relatable than it seems.
Like countless other people living with a persistent internet connection, Casey spends the bulk of her waking hours online searching for distractions connections with others, and what her place in the world is. Like most young people, she’s still too close to her own evolution into adulthood to realize that it’s an ongoing process. Cobb brings a pronounced edge to her performance that speaks to the sharp, calculating quality in Casey that comes out in flashes as the story kicks into gear and you watch as she begins the simple, strange process of participating in the “World’s Fair Challenge” the movie’s title refers to.
Schoenbrun’s story never addresses whether social media platforms like Tiktok or horror movies like The Ring exist within its seemingly normal world. But the titular challenge brings the energy of both those things into Casey’s life after she records herself doing it, and uploads it to the internet with the hope that others out there will watch with rapt attention because of what the viral phenomenon is supposed to do to participants.
Though the darkness of Casey’s room where she records and uploads her videos is a comfort to her and makes her feel safe enough to open up to strangers, the over-bright harshness of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’s scenes elsewhere speaks to the idea that, because of what Casey’s engaging in, there’s nowhere she’s truly safe. For all of the movie’s intimate close-up shots of its lead, you’re kept at an emotional distance from her that makes it difficult to determine just how real the supernatural things that begin “happening” to her are after she uploads her first video, and another Challenge participant named JLB (Michael J. Rogers) reaches out to let her know he’s a fan.
As Casey and JLB’s parasociality loses its one-sidedness, JLB encourages Casey to make more videos so that he can consume them and make sure that she’s safe from otherworldly dangers. All of this is unsettling and then some as the story cuts to JLB’s perspective and you can see that he’s very much a grown man trying to form some kind of bond with a child.
The movie complicates its lead characters’ dynamic, though, with a handful of carefully-placed scenes from other Challenge participants’ lives, and you’re shown in horrific detail the different, chilling, and inexplicable ways a number of them die while playing, adding some credence to JLB’s warnings. What’s surprising about many of the movie’s scares is how, between Daniel Patrick Carbone’s cinematography and Jane Schoenbrun’s editing, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’s visual effects completely sell a number of its stranger moments. But the creepiest things that happen in the movie all spotlight how Cobb herself is really where the movie’s dark strength lies.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair isn’t exactly a horror movie about monsters manifesting out of the digital ether to terrorize people, but that is an important part of Casey’s journey and how the film comes to a close. What it is, quite obviously though, is a reminder about why so many of us are drawn to the web and why we have to remind ourselves that we are people outside of it even at times when we feel like we aren’t.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It does not yet have distribution.
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