This review originally ran as part of Paste’s Sundance 2021 coverage.
Bad things come in threes. Folklore and horror cinema have said as much for ages. Bloody Mary. Candyman. Beetlejuice. Now, Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, a constitutionally melancholic coming-of-age film tailor-made for the creepypasta era. Campfire ghost stories haven’t gone away as people have retreated further into curated digital worlds. Rather, they’ve continued haunting us on our social media feeds and Reddit threads, our subscribed YouTube channels and for that matter our news outlets, which tell a brand new horror story just about every damn day. The web is no respite from fear. It’s a breeding ground for it.
Granted, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair isn’t straightforwardly a “horror” movie—even if the title reads like an invocation chanted by hypnotized cultists doomed to whatever fate awaits them at the fairgrounds. That, of course, is more or less exactly what it is, as evinced in the opening sequence, where young Casey (Anna Cobb) recites the phrase three times while staring wide-eyed at her computer monitor. Innocent enough, if firmly eerie. Then she pricks her finger with a button’s pin about two dozen times in rapid succession and streaks her blood on the screen (though just out of the audience’s line of sight) to conclude the ritual. All that’s left is to wait and see how joining in this online “game” changes her, as if undergoing a Cronenbergian rite of passage.
What Schoenbrun wants viewers to wonder is whether those changes are in earnest, and whether changes documented by other participants in the “World’s Fair challenge” are legit or staged. They’re unreliable narrators. To an extent, so is Casey—insomuch as teens stepping into the world solo for the first time can be relied on for anything resembling objectivity. There’s also the question of exactly where Casey draws the line between truth and macabre make-believe, and of course whether that belief is made up. Maybe there really is a ghost in the machine. Or maybe a life predominantly lived in a virtual space—because physical space is dominated by isolation and bad paternal relationships—naturally inclines people toward delusion at worst and an unerring sensation of disembodiment at best.
Casey, breaking the fourth wall in one of her video diaries, appears to possess the latter: “It was like watching myself on a TV all the way across the room,” she says, describing the waking nightmares of her youth. “I was aware of my actions, yes, granted, I was aware, but I couldn’t control myself.” Since starting her path along the World’s Fair challenge, that feeling’s crept back into her veins. Casey’s recollections of that childhood sensation express her heightened sense of foreboding now as a teenager. Assorted weirdness piles up around her, including—but not limited to—a jolting video message sent to her by an anonymous fellow challenge participant named JLB (Michael J. Rogers) and a V/H/S-style series of clips in which other participants document the body horrors inflicted upon them since accepting the challenge themselves.
Schoenbrun’s film communicates Casey’s impressionability even in the frames she’s absent from. Think of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair as a morbid spiritual cousin to Eighth Grade if Kayla Day tripped and fell down a creepypasta rabbit hole without so much as a Hare or a Hatter to chaperone her. Confronting darkness by oneself is part of growing up. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair points out that there are limits to how much darkness anyone can—or should—face alone, lest it swallow them up. Casey’s journey through the endless parade of fucked-up web content proves too dark for her, and at its grimmest the film hits peaks of nerve-shredding dread. But more than being just frightening, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is confidently weird and deeply sad. Coming of age shouldn’t look this desolate. We all make our way to adulthood on our own, of course, but Casey has no one to walk that road with her. She has no friends we see or hear of. Her dad’s a neglectful asshole. JLB is her only shoulder to lean on, and leaning on the shoulder of a grown man contacting you over Skype is an awkward proposition for a teenage girl, to say the very least.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair concludes with ambiguity and atmospheric loss, as if we’re meant to consider leaving childhood behind as a form of tragedy. Spoken in Schoenbrun’s language, that process is painful, transformative and—first and foremost—an internal experience regardless of the movie’s stripped-down visual pleasures. Outside forces influence Casey, but Casey ultimately controls the direction those forces take her. In a way, that’s empowering. But Schoenbrun belies the collective dynamic implied in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’s title with Casey’s lonesome reality. Even on the Internet, she only has herself.
Director: Jane Schoenbrun
Writer: Jane Schoenbrun
Starring: Anna Cobb, Michael J. Rogers
Release Date: Sundance
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.