In an interview with Wilson Chapman for Variety, director Jane Schoenbrun rejected the tendency for cinema to present an Extremely Online world as ‘maximalist.’ That is not the internet known to them as an older millennial growing up online—or even for myself, on the younger end of the millennial scale. In their own words, they wished to make a film about an internet ‘which can feel quite lonely, quite boring. A space where you could spend all day staring at a box that’s reflecting you back at yourself… A place you could find these strange crevices to hide online.’
That film is the deeply personal and minimalist We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, an experimental blend of screen-horror and coming-of-age drama. We open on the POV of a webcam, as teenager Casey (Anna Cobb, in a towering debut) prepares to perform for her followers. ‘Today, I’m going to be taking the World’s Fair Challenge.’ She draws blood from a finger prick, smears the screen, recites ‘I want to go to the World’s Fair’ three times—akin to Bloody Mary—and watches a URL of strobing lights. And then, slowly, very slowly but surely, she begins to change.
Physically, psychologically, something is happening to the challengers that is both disturbing and captured tenderly. Each participant exists alone within their screens and speaking, performing, outwards to the invisible audience. The closest we get to real world interaction is when Casey’s unseen father bangs the ceiling to keep the noise down at 3am. The film isn’t structured like one, more like a screen-addled trance, a somnambulist drift between World’s Fair videos and Casey’s diary updates. She videos herself sleeping, expecting to wake up as something new and turning mid-dream to the camera with a demented grin. And it’s these videos that draw her into the world of JLB (Michael J. Rogers), an equally lonely adult man, equally enamoured by the World’s Fair.
It’s these structures that unlock a trinity of what World’s Fair represents to Schoenbrun. There’s the online crevices; specifically the ‘Creepypasta’ community (for the uninitiated: viral, contemporary, horror-centric urban myths; a portmanteau of creepy, copy and paste), which Schoenbrun is considerably ‘in’ with. A ‘Slenderman’ archival documentary—A Self-Induced Hallucination—under their belt, Schoenbrun collaborated with other critics and content creators within the community to build the on-screen legend of the World’s Fair into something tangible, for those who grew up within or adjacent to its orbit. And it is felt within World’s Fair, where the videos Casey interacts with, however baffling or disturbing, reach out to her; they feel communal in a way that the internet isn’t often presented on screen.
Then, there is the fractured, pernicious relationships that can be found in these unregulated spaces. World’s Fair treats its subjects with the respect of an insider, but something is different with JLB. Schoenbrun has been open in the autobiographical slant of World’s Fair, and in being groomed online by someone before a ghosting broke the connection. JLB’s intentions are never certain, predatory or parental, torn between concern for Casey’s wellbeing yet beholden to the World’s Fair and its participants for companionship. The power dynamics are twisted too, between every party. Casey wields more than she expects; her progressively unnerving content, even if only viewed by a dozen, is her power. Everyone here is an unreliable narrator, only ever seen when aware of being viewed and offering themselves to others; therefore somewhat conscious of when they can assume control through their performance.
And finally, there are the underlying themes of gender dysphoria. World’s Fair was conceived as a personal tale of being Extremely Online in a formative age, yet parallel to its production, Schoenbrun came to the self-realisation of being trans and non-binary. The subtext of Casey’s story becomes more than obvious with this knowledge. The pervasive dread of the world, and no access to a language that would help her explain it. The isolation, and gravitation towards others within a community. An online ritual that answers with a transformation. Comfort in spaces that allow her to present and explore alternative versions of herself in a way that can be controlled. As Schoenbrun states: ‘The horror of perception is something that trans people understand uniquely.’ Casey is one of many, at a loss for understanding her existence and turning to the computer screen for the slightest form of validation. Her interactions on and with the internet are a call into the void in the hopes of a response; the World’s Fair is the being, at once monster and ally, that rears its head from the abyss to greet her.