As Casey goes deeper into the game and into herself, a previous player of the game attempts to reach out to her in order to relate his experiences of the World’s Fair and to warn about the detrimental and possibly catastrophic effects of reaching a point within the game from which she may not be able to return…
The opening eight minutes of Jane Schoenbrun’s unnerving dive into the online existences of alienated folks set the tone for the remainder of this strange, needlingly creepy and prescient examination of a world which is played out on screens, where reality is always in question and perceptions can be both created and manipulated.
This approach leaves much for the viewer to interrogate in terms of exactly what is going on and the lack of spoon-fed exposition may frustrate but for anyone willing to immerse themselves in this particularly dark little corner of cyberspace there’s plenty to hold the interest and the deliberate pacing means the reveals are withheld for much of the running time, the bulk of which is centred on Casey alone as she records herself as her life is changed by the World’s Fair.
Focusing the attention of the piece on just one character is a bold move but I’m happy to say that Anna Cobb rises to the challenge and then some, giving a nuanced, layered performance which nails the confusion of growing up as an outsider needing to feel a sense of belonging but also not wanting to lose any of their individuality. She has moments of strength but her vulnerability is always visible and there’s a real fear for Casey, especially in her interactions with JLB (Michael J. Rogers), painting himself as her online saviour but coming across as someone you’re never, ever going to be sure of in terms of his actual intentions.
A fascinating aspect of We’re All Going To The World’s Fair is that the plot and, by extension, our expectations of where the story may be heading, is influenced by our own specific knowledge of both the Internet and the online personalities which reside there. Wisely, the screenplay never gives any obvious answers as to who may be good or bad and there are details regarding the policing (or lack of) of certain communities which give Casey’s activities a certain frisson of virtual lawlessness, while at the same time her own boorish father – heard but never seen – is more concerned with his daughter making too much noise at 3am rather than what she may be involved in.
With its themes of identity and transformation firmly at its core, this is clearly a personal piece for its writer/director Jane Schoenbrun but those subjects are opened up into a wider tale with which we can all identify – what we present to the world may often be so much different to how we feel about ourselves - and the lack of scenes involving multiple characters enhance the feeling of loneliness of its players, sending their thoughts into the ether and hoping that someone will respond with a view or a comment.
In terms of horror, there are almost no moments in which this film sticks to genre trends. Even a sequence which recalls Paranormal Activity doesn’t resolve in the way most of us would expect. The final act continues this trend, avoiding a typical showdown and replacing this with a summary, to camera, of what happened next. Or did that actually happen next? The unreliability of the narrator is more than enough to cast doubt on the conclusion and we’re left to pick over just about everything we’ve been told.
Given its set up, We’re All Going To The World’s Fair could have been full of gory webcam horror but I’m so glad that it isn’t. It uses the technology and pleasingly clever sound design to transport the viewer into the headspace of an ordinary person who is trying to find their place in the world and is willing, as many of us are, to experiment with that most modern of addictive drugs, the online like.
The calm, measured approach provides a fine contrast with the outlandish mythology surrounding the World’s Fair challenge, and sporadic references to its previous outcomes are woven into the main story which adds to the impressive world building. It’s a film full of deliberate contradictions, half-truths and obfuscation which will test the viewer but at the heart of it all this is a movie which, in its singular way, has plenty to say about who we are and who we may want to be.