‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ review: One of the year’s best films is a digital nightmare

Anna Cobb in "We're All Going to the World's Fair." Photo: Utopia.

Many directors have tried to grapple with the internet’s profound effect on humanity. Few have succeeded like Jane Schoenbrun, a New York-based filmmaker whose new movie, "We’re All Going to the World’s Fair," feels the alienation of a life lived online deep within its bones. Rarely does a film convey the internal lives of its characters as viscerally as "World’s Fair." Rarer still is a filmmaker who can accomplish this task with such clean, unadorned storytelling. 

In this film, the space between pixels is both a warm blanket and a terrifying void.

About ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’: Creepypasta brought to life

Newcomer Anna Cobb stars as Casey, a lonely teenager in an utterly generic suburb whose interest in horror leads her to join a creepypasta-esque online game called the World’s Fair Challenge. The initiation into the game has two steps: First, players ritualistically cut themselves and wipe the blood on their computer monitors, the first of many comminglings of the digital and corporeal in this film. They then watch a video whose contents remain hidden to the viewer, but are projected onto Casey’s awestruck face with flashes of colored light. 

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Once the ritual is complete, all that Casey knows is that she’s supposed to "feel different." And she does, although she has trouble articulating how and why.

Casey searches for answers on YouTube, where vloggers upload videos with titles like "I Am Turning to Plastic — Why Does It Feel So Good?" and "I Can’t Feel My Body." (That second one features a shirtless man running on a treadmill and repeatedly punching himself in the face.) The hyper-reality of the game combines with intense dissociation, a feeling that jumps out of the screen and settles on the viewer’s chest, weighty and suffocating as a stone. 

Schoenbrun, who is trans and non-binary, describes this hellish limbo in their director’s statement as an attempt to convey the lived experience of gender dysphoria. It feels awful. And yet "World’s Fair" keeps drawing you in. 

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Like the protagonist of "Eighth Grade"— in some ways, a companion piece to "World’s Fair"— Casey makes videos of her own as well. They’re the endearing work of an angsty adolescent who wants to come off as tough and jaded but still cuddles with a stuffed lemur at night. Those videos soon attract the attention of "JLB" (Michael J. Rogers), a middle-aged man who lives in a huge, sterile McMansion with a woman who’s either his wife or his mother. (Glimpsed only briefly in the background, she’s credited as "JLB’s ???") JLB sees something of himself in Casey, whose isolation — she lives with her dad, who appears only as a yelling, disembodied voice — and complete immersion in the World’s Fair Challenge worries the older man. 

See ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ for: An intricate tour from a digital native


Anna Cobb in "We're All Going to the World's Fair." Photo: Utopia.

The natural assumption is that JLB, by reaching out to Casey and attempting to befriend her, is a predator who’s grooming her for sexual abuse. But "World’s Fair" is slipperier and more empathetic than that. Poe’s Law, another of Schoenbrun’s inspirations for the film, states that it’s impossible to tell in online interactions whether or not someone is being sincere. Add the blurring of lines between fantasy and reality that comes with role playing games, and Casey and JLB’s relationship takes on an ambiguous quality that’s only clarified when Schoenbrun pulls back to reveal JLB’s true intentions. 

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Unlike films like "Unfriended" that take place entirely on a computer screen, "World’s Fair" knocks the viewer off of an already unstable footing by alternating between crisp digital images, YouTube videos and handheld cell phone footage. Each format connotes realism in its own way: When the film goes high-def, the implication is that we are getting a glimpse into Casey and JLB’s "real lives." But gritty, pixelated recordings also convey something forbidden, something that’s more honest than the artifice of professionally produced content. "World’s Fair" intelligently manipulates these assumptions as well, drawing viewers in with long, still takes that build to unbearable dread, and punctuating innocent moments of silliness and joy with disturbing flashes of abject terror. 

(To what extent Casey is consciously creating this horror is also unclear — she is a big fan of the "Paranormal Activity" movies.)

Cobb also plays an integral role in building the intricate emotional architecture of "World’s Fair." The young actor spends the entire film alone, the screen her only scene partner. And the vulnerability of this lonely child in a baggy T-shirt staring down a webcam, talking to no one, is heartbreaking. The tonal shifts and dramatic reveals in "World’s Fair" are subtle, as are Cobb’s reactions to them: The devastation is all in her eyes when JLB explains to Casey what an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) is, and the profound effect this will have on their relationship is conveyed in the slight turning of her shoulders away from the camera. 

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Schoenbrun is a veteran of the early-’00s internet, and spent their teen years posting on forums about horror movies and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." The corners of the internet explored in "World’s Fair" are far deeper and stranger than the mob mentality of social media; liminal spaces where someone can express their truest inner self by pretending to be someone else. That makes "World’s Fair" a secret handshake: Of transness, of alienation, of isolation, of imagination. The film features real-life YouTube personalities and a score by Alex G, a singer-songwriter who rose to fame on Bandcamp. It’s a work by a true digital native, with an original vision of a world where the boundaries of a screen are a place of both unimaginable horror and infinite possibility.

Grade: A

In select theaters April 15. Opens nationwide and on VOD April 22. Unrated. 86 minutes. Dir: Jane Schoenbrun.Featuring: Anna Cobb, Michael J. Rogers.

About the writer: Katie Rife is a film critic, programmer, and former Senior Writer of The A.V. Club. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Polygon and Vulture, among other outlets.

More horror, streaming free on Tubi

Jennifer’s Body (2009): Wrongly maligned in its time, Karyn Kusama’s inspired horror-comedy has undergone a bit of a cultural re-evaluation in recent years — or, put more plainly, everyone seems to finally be catching onto the fact that "Jennifer’s Body" rules. Megan Fox plays Jennifer, a cheerleader who finds herself in a classic high-school pickle: She’s possessed by a demon and fueled by a drive to feast upon her classmates’ flesh. Amanda Seyfried is her best friend Needy (yes, Needy) who senses that something’s not quite right. It’s a riot. Rated R. 102 minutes. Dir: Karyn Kusama. Also featuring Adam Brody, Johnny Simmons, Chris Pratt, J.K. Simmons, Amy Sedaris.

Paranormal Demons (2018): David Brückner wrote, directed and appears in this "Blair Witch"-esque screamer, in which "a group of film students visit a sanatorium where a poltergeist supposedly resides and discover true horror while on the ghost hunt." Rated R. 96 minutes. Dir: David Brückner. Featuring: Ildiko Preszly, David Brückner, Moloch.

Season of the Witch (1972): Groundbreaking horror auteur George A. Romero turns his gaze from the zombies of "Night of the Living Dead" to a friendly neighborhood coven. A bored housewife begins to explore both extramarital sex and witchcraft as an escape from life’s tedium. Thought lost for years, "Season of the Witch" was restored for this release. Rated R. 89 minutes. Dir: George A. Romero. Featuring: Jan White, Ray Laine.

The Texas Chain Shaw Massacre (1974): Tobe Hooper’s hugely influential horror classic introduced the world to Leatherface and set a new standard for goriness in cinema. The kind of movie you don’t want to watch alone (or on a full stomach). Plus: Cannibals! Rated R. 83 minutes. Dir: Tobe Hooper. Featuring: Marilyn Burns, Teri McMinn, Gunnar Hansen, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain.

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