Jane Schoenbrun’s we’re all going to the world’s fair evokes a recent slew of creepypasta, online found footage or internet challenge horror pictures (cf: Slenderman, Unfriended, #Blue_Whale) – but turns out to be playing a different game. Whereas some recent offerings (the excellent Umma comes to mind) dress up as horror films in order to present character or relationship studies, world’s fair does everything it can not to be a horror film – but finds darkness inescapable. Teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) is alone in her attic room, talking to her laptop. She performs a ritual that’s part of an online craze, which will supposedly get her into a horror game or utopian idyll called ‘the world’s fair’. It’s unsettling that narrow-focused Casey appears to have no knowledge of (or interest in) what a world’s fair actually is, though Schoenbrun includes some images that show the film isn’t confined to its lead’s worldview.
As she performs creepily, Casey attracts the interest of JLB (Michael J. Rogers), another user who hides behind a goth scrawl avatar but is actually a middle-aged, affluent guy. Casey has an offscreen father, who yells at her to turn the music down in the middle of the night, and JLB has a family, similarly unseen shut out of his online interests. There are no in-person interactions, no sense of Casey’s school or family life (if she has any) or JLB’s home or career beyond the strict limits set by Schoenbrun’s lens. Even when we get out of the attic, we’re with these two solo players. We see some other fan-generated world’s fair videos, which are more conventionally shock-horror (one grim trick with entry tickets pulled out of a wound is memorable) and Casey goes out of her way to get spooky … until she admits it’s performance, Casey probably isn’t her name, and that she’s been trying to live in the horror films she loves (she cites Paranormal Activity). But having shed her mask, what’s left? Is JLB a groomer with sinister intent? Maybe, but the film also floats the possibility that he’s just as lost and adrift in the middle of a secure life as Casey is as an alienated teen, and that perhaps the way their relationship is stretched to snapping point is as tragic loss rather than an escape.
The peril of this approach – which runs to many long takes of repetitive action or nothing-much-happening and evoke Lynch or even Warhol – is that the viewer becomes as bored, jaded and alienated from the film as Casey is from her onscreen or offscreen life – but Cobb, a ringer for pre-transition Elliott Page, gives a showcase performance of quixotic vulnerability, abrasiveness, terror, wonder and longing. Cobb’s Casey is an emblematic character and performance – we’ve seen a lot like her in recent films, and in life, but she goes a lot deeper into a mode that was becoming an unexamined stereotype.