Jane Schoenbrun’s unsettling genre-defying feature debut We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which world premiered at Sundance, captures much of the loneliness, isolation, and absorption in our screens that so many of us have experienced over the last year, though it was actually conceived and shot in pre-Covid times. As the film opens, we meet teenager Casey (a mesmerising Anna Cobb), alone in her attic bedroom as she’s about to begin playing a mysterious immersive online role-playing game, the World’s Fair Challenge, that blurs the line between virtual and reality. We don’t see her interact with anyone IRL, aside from her father yelling at her from off-screen to keep it down when she’s watching a video online at 3am. Instead, Schoenbrun creates a distinct but recognisable world with the narrative unfolding on laptop, cellphone, and projector screens, and through online conversations with an older man, JLB (Michael J. Rogers), who is obsessed with watching the videos that Casey uploads while playing the game and begins making anonymous Skype calls to her, fearing for her safety. As with the documentary Searchers, which also premiered at this year’s Sundance, we as viewers are often placed behind the screen that Casey is looking at, which here has a disorientating effect.
With creepypasta-inspired horror elements, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is unnerving at times, but never particularly scary compared with the terrifying Paranormal Activity for instance which is referenced. Instead the film becomes more meditative, with a gorgeously atmospheric soundtrack composed by Alex G and the audience is given plenty of space to bring their own thoughts with them. The pace is pretty slow, often lacking in tension. There’s a fine line between maintaining some mystery and holding too much back, and that balance is a little off here. The film certainly touches on some intriguing ideas around identity, how we perceive and present ourselves and how we’re perceived by others, and effectively taps into insomnia-fuelled paranoia, making it a worthwhile experience, as well as for its excellent central performance by Anna Cobb who delivers nuanced work despite a rather slender screenplay. The film certainly creates a haunting mood not without some hope which will likely stay with you after the credits role.
By James Kleinmann
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair had its world premiere in the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.