Alone in her attic bedroom teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) becomes immersed in an online horror game – the World’s Fair challenge. Casey documents herself performing the ritual that means she’s playing the game. As the game progresses Casey films updates on changes that may or may not be happening to her. Meanwhile, a mysterious user JLB (Michael J Rogers) strikes up a friendship with Casey.
Director Jane Schoenbrun’s first narrative feature is a disquieting, sensitive look at the inner life of a troubled teen. Eli Cohn’s sound design incorporates ASMR techniques (currently all the rage on TikTok and Youtube) making even the most innocuous of sounds incredibly unsettling. The sound wraps around you in a way that is both intimate and jarring.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a screen life feature meaning that everything we see is footage from Casey’s computer or phone. An offshoot of the found footage genre it’s an effective format for horror (see the similarly themed recent Russian movie #blue_whale) and here it’s even more unsettling as it puts the audience members in the position of voyeur. We watch as Casey scrolls through endless videos of other competitors in the World’s Fair challenge as they post obviously fake videos of the changes they are going through. A woman claims she’s turning into plastic. A man claims he has stuff growing in his arm. It’s all nonsense, a snapshot of the madness that is the internet and youtube on any day full of pranksters and people faking things for attention and shock value. But the videos affect Casey.
Through her videos, we see Casey’s mental health steeply declining. Schoenbrun purposefully keeps Casey’s home life in the background. Casey has a father we never see and one beautifully tender scene sees her falling asleep to footage of a woman presumably her mother. As her videos progress, Casey becomes increasingly unhinged. The poster image of Casey swathed in glow in the dark makeup ripping a beloved childhood item to pieces in a fugue state is the talking point of the film. It’s deeply upsetting but a sequence where she energetically dances to a song before breaking into a screaming fit is even more distressing. Casey is sweet, curious, angry, isolated and disturbed.
Into this unstable situation slithers JLB a grown man who gets Casey’s attention by frightening her and then they form a friendship of sorts. We recognise that JLB is employing grooming tactics on Casey and yet Schoenbrun’s movie never makes his motives clear. JLB is never inappropriate with Casey (beyond the innate creepiness of a grown man religiously watching a child’s video uploads). Schoenbrun’s narrative resists easy judgements. JLB seems like the loneliest man in the world alone in a sweeping mansion talking to a teen in a mental health crisis. He genuinely seems worried about Casey and yet he gets her attention by demanding it with a terrifying video. Their friendship is so wrong and yet both seem so desperate for human connection.
Anna Cobb in her first screen role is captivating as Casey. Your heart breaks for her naivety and vulnerability while you fear for her safety as her mental health seems to react badly as the “challenge” progresses.
It all builds to an ambiguous ending with a highly unreliable narrator describing Casey’s fate. How Casey’s World’s Fair challenge ended is up to you to decide. Having discussed the film with several people we all had completely different takeaways of the ending.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a haunting, tender look at a girl in crisis. Haunting and evocative it burrows under your skin and stays there.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair screened at Grimmfest.