Film - We’re All Going To The World’s Fair

Available now on Digital, Ren Zelen watched We’re All Going To The World’s Fair (some spoilers) ...

Writer/Director: Jane Schoenbrun
Starring: Anna Cobb, Michael J Rogers, Holly Anne Frink

We're All Going To The World's Fair invites audiences into the internet phenomenon of interactive horror games and their alienating and mind-warping effect on a generation.

In her remarkable screen debut Anna Cobb plays Casey, a lonely girl in her early teens, isolated on the outskirts of a dull, wintry American town of strip malls and freeways. She looks for connection and interaction online, where she posts regular updates on her life. She hopes to produce more interesting content and engage more viewers by joining an online horror challenge.

She must seek entry to the horror game by chanting ‘I want to go to the World’s Fair’ three times and then smearing the screen with her own blood. The challenge is a dare which claims to unlock hidden aspects of a participant’s psyche, to change their perceptions and involve them in a hallucinatory waking nightmare. The only stipulation is that participants must self-record and broadcast their sensations over the internet.

While Casey waits for these ‘changes’ to begin, she watches video entries from other participants who contribute to the game’s creepypasta community portal. They all claim to have gone through sinister changes. One says he cannot feel his own body, another that she is possessed, one girl displays small, newly grown wings, while another reveals that she is turning into plastic. There is a boy who shows his skin drying into green lichen and cracking up (a glimpse of body horror) while another claims that a game of Tetris is being played inside his torso. One boy even shows himself being sucked into his laptop screen.

Casey spends her time in semi-darkness alone in her attic bedroom, decorated with glow-in-the-dark stars. We never see her with other people although there is one instance of her father making an aural-only appearance when he shouts at her through her door at 3am to keep the noise down. Casey seems to prefer to spend her time exploring the dark corridors of the internet.

In one of her video posts Casey confesses that she has been a sleepwalker with disturbing dreams and one night she dresses and goes to the barn behind her house where she uncases and examines her father’s automatic rifle, after which she puts on a lulling ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) video to help her fall asleep in lieu of parental nurture. (Later she will fantasize about what it would be like to kill her father with the shotgun).

As Casey broadcasts her thoughts and sensations it isn’t long before she receives a cryptic message from a faceless stranger, known only by the initials JLB, who says he's a veteran of the game. He professes to be concerned for her wellbeing and begs her to continue to send out more videos, particularly those of her sleeping, which he will then monitor because he is worried about her.

There isn’t much traditional horror within We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, writer/director Jane Schoenbrun is more concerned with examining what kind of damage might ensue to a personality when their solitary existence leads them to lead a life which unfolds exclusively online.

When Schoenbrun reveals that Casey's online mentor and ‘protector’ JLB is a middle-aged man (Michael J. Rogers), who obsessively pores over her videos, she raises society’s fears of creeps and paedophiles lurking online to befriend and groom the very young.

Anna Cobb’s one-girl film debut is extraordinarily fearless and unselfconscious. Our discomfort comes partly from never being entirely sure how much of Casey’s videos and interactions with JLB are just ‘playing the game’, how much is performance art, and how much is her actually losing her grip on reality and experiencing a deterioration in her mental health.

Michael J Rogers performance is also deeply disturbing in its contradictions – it encapsulates the creepiness of a middle-aged man obsessed with a very young girl on the internet, while also highlighting his own emptiness and neediness. A man so addicted to Casey’s online persona he encourages her increasing exhibitionism.

Schoenbrun’s film is unique in allowing the viewer an insight into how it feels to be a ‘child of the internet’ and how the anonymity that it provides gives participants a way of creating another existence outside that of the real world. They can escape their inner problems by fabricating a life as someone else.

Schoenbrun takes as her subject matter the online games believed to lead vulnerable and lonely children down dark paths of self- destruction, and she appears to have first-hand knowledge of that intense and hypnotic existence. It’s a film made by someone who knows whereof they speak.

One disappointment is that the end of the film is provided by JLB. It’s never clear whether JLB is recounting an actual experience or simply his fantasy of closure, but I was curious as to Casey’s own narrative, but perhaps the idea is that she does indeed ‘disappear’ as she once feared, and we will never really know what happened to her, which I suppose, is closer to an online experience.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a deftly handled, audaciously experimental but, it must be said, often grindingly monotonous, exploration of dysphoria through webcam footage. It reveals something of the hostile virtual terrain that today’s young people must learn to navigate, sometimes encountering visions that can disturb them, affect them and perhaps change them for life.

Review Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2022 All rights reserved.

We're All Going to the World's Fair is now available on Digital Download followed by Blu-ray on 23rd May

Image - Lightbulb Film Distribution

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