We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

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Horror movie, or love story, neither or both? We’re All Going to the World’s Fair exists in a category of its own, in the new territory opened up by online spaces where lives can be lived in atomised seclusion.

In a nice cosy attic room, with stars projected on the ceiling, Casey (Anna Cobb) is talking to her laptop, looking straight into the lens as she declares that she’s decided she’s going to take the “World’s Fair challenge”. She’s talking to her followers on her channel, but from Casey’s downbeat attitude, the number of viewers is probably close to zero.

The “World’s Fair challenge” is something like the Candyman incantation – kind of a dare – and consists of Casey saying, “I wanna go to the world’s fair” three times, then sticking a pin into her left index finger until it bleeds. What is meant to happen next is not explained, but bad things, terrible consequences, unspecified travails, are suggested. It’s never really spelled out, but Casey believes she’s about to tangle with forces beyond her control. Her task, once she’s signed up for the internet’s scariest online horror game is to take the challenge and report the symptoms to other players.

Casey lies on her bed watching her laptop
Tuned in… or out?

If it’s a metaphor it’s a very literal one for the way the internet and social media work, the way memes becomes themes in a life, or the way conspiracy theories generated in a bedroom can spread. Or not.

When Casey’s not filming herself asleep, again for her channel, she’s watching ASMR clips of a woman stroking the air and making “go to sleep” noises. This is how she lives her life.

Down the line Casey “meets” JLB (Michael J Rogers), who claims to be an online researcher into the lore and history of the World’s Fair. In their Skype (was it Skype or Zoom?) calls, all she can see of him is a creepy pencil sketch of a ghoulishly grinning face. She’s unaware that he’s at least old enough to be her father. At least. What is he up to? Are we getting a re-run of 2005’s Hard Candy, when Elliot (then going by Ellen) Page extracted payback with extreme prejudice from an older online groomer?

Perhaps the best thing about We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is its tone, which is creepy from that first shot right to the end, thanks in large part to the decision by writer/director Jane Schoenbrun to give it a Paranormal Activity ambience (the film is namechecked), shooting much of it from the point of view of a laptop or smartphone camera, the way so many YouTubers interact with the wider world.

It must have been made for buttons, but the minimalism is very effective, Alex Giannascoli’s darkly ambient soundtrack adding chills as Casey skitters about in her bedroom. We never see Casey’s parents or anyone else in the family. Her contact with the world seems to be entirely mediated through the screen. When she is eventually glimpsed outdoors, she’s at a cemetery sitting on gravestones, a reminder of what goth/emo-inclined types used to do before the internet came along.

This minimalism throws a lot onto the shoulders of Anna Cobb, as Casey. It’s such a natural performance – passive-aggressive at times, hysterical at others, a cooing little girl voice for the most part. A spooky, adrift, determined teenager stuck at a moment of arrested development. Or is she just having a lark? Does she know this is all a giggle but the important thing in playing a game is to play along properly?

Whether we’re watching a digital native swimming confidently in waters she’s entirely familiar with, role-playing like crazy because that’s what it’s all about, or a little girl lost, that fuzzy line, the relationship between online and offline is what the entire film seems to be holding up for examination.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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