Jane Schoenbrun’s portrait of a life lived online is an occasionally challenging watch that will hold some at arm’s length.
Synopsis: “I want to go to the World’s Fair. I want to go to the World’s Fair. I want to go to the World’s Fair.” Say it three times into your computer camera. Prick your finger, draw some blood and smear it on the screen. Now press play on the video. They say that once you’ve seen it, the changes begin… In a small town, a shy and isolated teenage girl becomes immersed in an online role-playing game.
The internet and more specifically social media has never been more present in our lives, allowing connection across vast spaces and time zones. Many films seek to imbed this sensation of being online into the very fabric of the narrative, resulting in ‘screen life’ efforts that spin off from found footage films in many ways. Turning a laptop screen into a storytelling device presents obstacles, which World’s Fair alternates between embracing these restrictions and removing itself from them entirely. The result is an immersive, disquieting experience that truly echoes the ebb and flow of being online, indulging in the kind of myth building that comes from only showing glimpses of the truth.
Casey (Anna Cobb) lives a solitary existence and one that revolves around her device and an online world that removes her from her place at home. Becoming involved with an online game that appears to hold the key to a fascinating transformation, Casey indulges in the challenge, but there is something more sinister under the surface.
The film’s flirtation with screen life storytelling produces something far more ethereal, with the physical and digital worlds constantly intersecting and overlapping with one another. The first time we meet Casey, she is taking part in the challenge – a muted but intricately detailed sequence of events that involves watching a video. However, that ritual soon spills into reality as she has to contribute blood, traversing the gap between digital and physical, new and old forms.
As I approach my mid-thirties, I’m keenly aware that the effect of this film on me may not be as potent as it will be for younger viewers, more attuned to the consumption of online media and the forms it presents. A sequence in which Casey attempts to settle herself to sleep using an ASMR video plays out across a projector becomes a portrayal of a craving for distant intimacy. Using the video as a source of comfort and as a coping mechanism draws Casey out of her room, but into a different, secluded space.
Anna Cobb occupies a huge amount of the screen time and it is to her credit that she delivers such a demanding performance when Casey herself can be such a slippery character. She is sensitive, yet petulant at times, vulnerable but forthright and Cobb manages to portray all of these nuances incredibly well. Her command of the screen is something that is sure to draw in those who may feel alienated by the very online, somewhat obscure direction the film takes at times. Her interactions with JLB (Michael J Rogers) as he implores her to ‘keep making videos so I know you’re still OK’ add a sinister thread, but also highlight how malleable and fleeting internet interactions can be – a deleted account and someone is entirely erased.
As Casey’s journey to the World’s Fair continues, the film manages to expertly evoke the near-constant stream of content that the internet has to offer, lacing sections with menace and a concern about what is about to be witnessed. This is a film that so infrequently turns up the volume or makes anything fully flesh, such is its careful ambiguity, that when it does, it hits far stronger. Schoenbrun allows things to play out almost in real-time, refusing to be rushed or play by the usual rules. As the tension builds, she is content to allow it to play out, constantly denying the viewer an ‘out’ or full understanding.
While some will ultimately feel too alienated from this to really appreciate it, the moments of ritual, emphasis on communication and well-articulated uncanny moments, We’re All Going To The World’s Fair feels like a very special film.
4 out of 5 stars
We’re All Going To The World’s Fair plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.