The internet has long been a place for lonely people to connect with others who share similar interests or affinities. Jane Schoenbrun’s haunting new film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair explores the complexities of one such connection, while also examining the internet as performance art.
In a spectacular debut performance, Anna Cobb plays isolated teen Casey. Much of the film takes place in direct address to the camera as Casey records videos for an unknown audience. She has decided to take the “World’s Fair Challenge,” which is a horror-themed MMPORG or massive multiplayer online role playing game. Casey is extraordinarily raw and vulnerable in her videos, using them almost as a diary as she contends with the confusing changes that begin to occur after completing the challenge ritual.
Is she really going through changes because of the challenge? Is she play-acting for the game? Is she using the game as a way to express her feelings during puberty? It’s left to the viewer to decide exactly where the line is drawn. What does appear to be true, if you believe Schoenbrun’s camera is object when following Casey when she is not on the internet, is that she lives a secluded life. We see her snowy hometown, complete with desolate views of the AutoZone, a KFC, and a Best Buy along a rural highway. Casey flees an empty dining room, taking refuge in her attic bedroom, when a car approaches. Her father is only heard off-screen shouting at her to go to bed. The only connection she seems to have is with the anonymous viewers she records the videos for, and her lone stuffed animal.
The use of mostly available light from computer screens and the outdoors, both night and day, add to the eerie atmosphere, as does the sound design, created to mimic ASMR videos. We hear the scraping of Casey’s wooden chair across the floor, the beeping as her video camera begins recording, the chirp of a Skype call. Even an actual ASMR video from creator Slight Sounds takes on an ominous tone in Casey’s dreary world.
As Casey continues to document the changes she feels happening to her, she seeks the experiences of others who have taken the challenge on YouTube. Here Schoenbrun incorporates real found footage from YouTubers, as well as some newly created but believably weird videos. Dates on these videos indicate that the World’s Fair Challenge has existed for years, and Casey’s video deep dive includes many fan theories about the challenge, and even an 8-bit video game (created by Strawberry Mansion co-director Albert Birney). While this isn’t the first film to attempt to incorporate internet lore or “creepypasta” into its story, it may be the first that truly understands the appeal of this side of the internet. Casey shares in one video that she always liked horror movies and wanted to try living in one. Through creepypastas, creative internet users do just that.
But these communities are not just young people finding connections. Anyone who has used the internet from a young age has likely had at least one inappropriate experience with an older user. For Casey, this comes in the form of a concerned player with a creepy avatar who goes by the name of J.L.B. (Michael J. Rogers), who reaches out to her out of concern. Again Schoenbrun challenges viewers to distinguish in world gameplay from real world behavior. Is J.L.B. truly concerned about Casey, or just giving Casey another avenue in which to live out a horror film? Or are his motives something more sinister?
Like Casey, J.L.B. lives an isolated life, but in a large house he shares with a blink-or-you’ll-miss-her woman. Is this his wife? His mother? It’s unclear, but as filmed by Schoenbrun, this grown man’s life appears sad and unfulfilled, despite outward signs of wealth. Although framed as a creep, there is still clearly empathy for a man whose life is so empty he spends his time playing games on the internet with teenagers.
Cobb and Rogers are tasked with performing alone, acting opposite each other only through computer screens. This adds another layer of meta commentary to the internet as a stage, the version of ourselves we share more akin to performance art than our real selves. Both actors are up to the challenge, each excluding raw nerves and radical vulnerability that further push the boundaries of what is real and what is only make believe.
By using horror tropes to put the audience ill at ease, Schoenbrun deftly examines how the internet enables us to seek validity and true connections, while also allowing us a stage to present fictitious versions of ourselves. They are less interested in what is real for Casey than they are in the way the medium of film, just like the internet, allows them to push viewers to assess their own notions of reality. The real horror is in realizing no one can ever truly know anyone else the way they know themselves.
“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is out Friday in limited release. It expands and is available on demand on August 22nd.