Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Utopia releases the film in select theaters on Friday, April 15 with expansion to follow.
Jane Schoenbrun understands the internet. The filmmaker behind such projects as “A Self-Induced Hallucination” (a 2018 doc “about the internet”), the tech-tinged “Eyeslicer” series, and the dreamy “collective: unconscious” has always found the space to explore the worldwide web with respect, reverence, and a hearty dose of fear. For their narrative feature debut, Schoenbrun expands their obsessions to craft an intimate tale about the impact of modern internet culture. Part coming-of-age story, part horror film, and the greatest argument yet that something as bonkers as “Creepypasta” can inspire something so beautiful, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is a strong debut for a filmmaker who is nothing if not consistent in their themes.
Fair warning: If you, like this critic, are not someone positively impacted by ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” will likely get even more under your skin than it will for audiences who enjoy the whispered noises that trigger the condition. But even when it’s chilling, the movie finds meaning in discomfort.
The ASMR stuff arrives later in the film, and — even for people who don’t like it — exemplifies the deep-seated loneliness that permeates a film about, of all things, an online role-playing game. Thank both Schoenbrun and their wonderful star, Anna Cobb (“in her feature film debut,” as Schoenbrun’s credits charmingly remind), who bring profound empathy to both the film and Cobb’s Casey. We first meet Casey alone in her attic room, as she stares headlong into a computer screen in which Schoenbrun has tucked their camera. She is looking at us as much as we are looking at her, and as she practices an introduction to a video she’s about to film — shades of “Eighth Grade” — we get an early glimpse of her vulnerability. (By the time she introduces us to her well-loved stuffed animal “Poe,” it’s impossible not to ache for this sweet young teen.)
Today, Casey is taking the World’s Fair Challenge. For an internet wonk like her, that’s a big deal, and one she hopes might loop her into a wider internet role-playing world. It’s no wonder Casey would go looking for connection and expression online, there’s certainly not much of it to be found in either her suburban sprawl hometown or her unhappy home, neither of which ever appear to be populated by anyone else (we occasionally hear Casey’s dad downstairs, and that’s enough to clue us into the fraught nature of their relationship).
Shoulders squared, Casey announces her intention, saying “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times (big Bloody Mary vibes), pricking her finger, showing the blood to her audience (whoever they may be, and striking up an extended video of strobing lights and pulsating sound to watch. That, she tells us, is the challenge, but she’ll update us if she “starts to notice any changes.”
Moored between basic teenage ennui and a simmering eagerness for something, anything, to happen, Casey spends her days cycling through clips of what’s happening to other players of “the internet’s scariest online horror game.” One guy says he feels as if Tetris is being played in his body, another girl posts a video titled “I am turning to plastic” (the description notes that it “feels good”). At a distance, it seems sort of silly, but Casey’s online life is just as — if not more — vibrant than her “real” one, and these people are her community.
As she shuffles through her days, crafting scaring and sometimes charming videos about the World’s Fair while Alex G’s synth-laden score guides the story along, someone is indeed watching her. First appearing by way of a creepy message that distorts an image of Casey and tosses in an all-caps note (YOU ARE IN TROUBLE. I NEED TO TALK TO YOU.), World’s Fair obsessive “JLB” (Michael J. Rogers) easily punctures Casey’s little bubble. He has things to tell her, you see, and he hopes someone as smart and sensitive as Casey can understand. And, perhaps, Casey can keep making videos, just so that JLB can be sure that she’s safe.
While the majority of “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is anchored firmly in Casey’s solitary life, Schoenbrun makes the unexpected decision to cut into JLB’s world after his creepy introduction to Casey. Though the perspective shift is less effective when the filmmaker (who also edited the film) briefly dips into the experiences of other World’s Fair players (one scene involving a player whose “symptoms” are much worse than feeling like Tetris or turning into plastic feels out of place), being plunged into JLB’s life adds still more dimension to the film.
Casey’s experience with the internet is one of yearning and a need to connect, and while Schoenbrun avoids offering up pat explanations of just what JLB is seeking in that same space, Rogers’ purposely removed performance and JLB’s use of a litany of classic grooming techniques hint at what’s really going on. As JLB further roots into Casey’s life, the sensitive teen begins to craft increasingly scary videos, perhaps the product of her World’s Fair life, maybe the result of the off-line circumstances that have isolated her.
Schoenbrun never traffics in easy explanations of what’s happening, and even mentioning that things grow stranger as the film unfolds isn’t precisely true. The circumstances Casey finds herself in are unsettling, but they’re also human: She’s looking for connection, and the potential cost of that quest hovers inside every frame of Schoenbrun’s fascinating feature. Even the more shocking twists of “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” are rooted in reality, both online and off.
By the film’s end, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” proves its ASMR-like power: It’s impossible to shake, even when it makes you want to do just that.
“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section.