This We’re All Going to the World’s Fair essay contains spoilers. Jane Schoenbrun’s 2021 film features Anna Cobb, Michael J. Rogers and Holly Anne Frink. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.
Jane Schoenbrun’s debut feature film premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and subsequently earned rave reviews. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair paradoxically points to the unique historical moment it was released in — the claustrophobic indoors and pervasive solitude of the COVID-19 pandemic — and defies contextual specificity. Schoenbrun’s story of a teenage girl, Casey (Anna Cobb in her first acting role), is a timeless narrative of loneliness. The protagonist spends the entire film on the internet via her computer and phone, but We’re All Going to the World’s Fair also recalls the earlier technological era Schoenbrun (who is in their thirties) grew up in, before the internet was an emerging phenomenon.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is structured around a viral online game Casey takes part in. She does so to try and make more friends, living behind a closed door in her bedroom, with her ostensibly single father being reduced to a voice on the other side of this door. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair opens with Casey ritualistically beginning the game: repeating “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times, pricking her finger, smearing her blood on her computer screen (which is the camera lens) and then watching the World’s Fair video. As blue and pink strobe lights continue to flash after she has finished it, Casey promises to upload reports of any updates or changes — promises made to her future online viewers, who by proxy represent the spectators of Schoenbrun’s film. This opening scene lasts eight minutes, ending as alternative rock musician Alex G’s soundtrack kicks in.
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We’re All Going to the World’s Fair becomes its own game of anticipation and ambiguity, to match the one Casey is playing and documenting for her viewers, who alleviate her loneliness and could become her friends. Cobb’s character relies on the communal potential of film — as she discusses later: “I’m not good at talking with other people.” Casey’s films of various shapes and sizes do the talking for her, perhaps just like Schoenbrun, whose opposing choice to make fiction elevates We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’s responsibility as a mouthpiece. The version of the protagonist talking to her viewers is a performer. Casey fakes smiles, feigns extroversion and adopts a more talkative personality; it is just unclear whether the effects of the game are an extension of the drama or whether, within the fictional world of Schoenbrun’s film, they are real.
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But where We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’s game differs is in its use of additional space around the edges of Casey’s room. As in the film’s opening scene, cinematographer Daniel Patrick Carbone’s camera often becomes the protagonist’s phone or computer screen (sometimes desktop, sometimes laptop), directly aligning the audience with the perspectives of Casey’s online viewers. Though more often the camera is positioned elsewhere, informing viewers about the protagonist’s perspective and showing the borders of her screen while she looks at it, or complicating the perspectives of her viewers by having the camera stationed just to the side of her screen rather than in it, offering glimpses of the attic bedroom around her.
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Casey records updates for her growing audience — vlog uploads which are interspersed with scenes of her watching others’ videos to expand her understanding of the game. These guides might help the protagonist decide if changes are actually occurring or whether she only thinks they are, which wills them into happening. Schoenbrun’s film and Casey’s character wrestle with rather than resolve this uncertainty, and what short story writer George Saunders theorizes as “rising action” is constructed around this blurred line. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is always behind this line, as it were, because Schoenbrun resists the temptation to further complicate proceedings by dissolving the fourth wall. This could perhaps be done by turning Carbone’s camera round to him, revealing the workings of the crew and confessing, unequivocally, that their film is complicit in playing a trick on its spectator.
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Casey’s understanding of the World’s Fair is deepened through “How To” YouTube videos and Google searches for case studies of past participants, such as a man who repeatedly slaps himself while on a treadmill (allegedly a symptom of playing the game). Casey’s own updates include videos of her sleeping (in one, she crawls up to her screen/Schoenbrun’s camera), a scene in which she dances to pop music manically (before suddenly screaming mid-way through, then carrying on as if it never happened) and delivers short addresses to her audience, like “I know I should be cold right now, but I don’t feel anything,” along with a POV video recorded on her phone as she walks through a cemetery.
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As We’re All Going to the World’s Fair progresses — or, to return to Saunders’ terms, the action rises and the stakes of causality escalate, because “the story has no choice but to respond” — Casey’s updates are no longer recorded for a vague, unspecified online audience. One viewer, who she knows only as “JLB” (Michael J. Rogers), comments on her videos expressing concern when she stops uploading, then reaches out more directly. Hiding behind a detailed, textured pencil sketch of a cloaked, grinning man with black eyes, the profile named JLB chats to Casey on Skype. As Casey tells her new friend, either sustaining her performance or worrying authentically, “It’s like I can feel myself leaving my body. It’s like it’s making me someone else.” As JLB tells her, also referring to the game: “It’s like a conduit — it can access your dreams.”
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At the 40-minute mark, Schoenbrun expands their perspective mechanics and the spectator’s role as voyeur. They fold another component into We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’s balancing act of watchers and watched: the real JLB, responsible for drawing and voicing the sketch. After delaying Casey’s access to this knowledge — restricting her but liberating the film’s spectator — Schoenbrun shows a middle-aged man’s routine of watching Casey’s videos obsessively, along with his own research into the wider lore of the game. The director then fixates on one video in particular of a World’s Fair participant sat on his bathroom floor speaking robotically and holding his arm.
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Carbone’s camera zooms into the boy’s arm as he says that “It’s gotten worse.” A close-up reveals black and green scales just above the wrist. As he narrates to his own future viewers, the boy picks the scales and pulls an endless reel of “ADMIT ONE” cinema ticket stubs from beneath his skin. The borders of JLB’s computer screen have vanished from We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’s frame, so — as in many moments of Schoenbrun’s film — the scene occupies hyperreal space. It neither confirms nor denies that is actually happening, leaving the impossible, supernatural potential of the World’s Fair game a mystery.
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Most evident in this scene, Schoenbrun’s film draws on the influences of Slow Cinema and body horror, once again complicating its relationship between singularity and connections, between specificity and timelessness. Like We’re All Going to the World’s Fair‘s approach to a particular moment in recent history, which when first released was still the present — that is, both drawing attention to pandemic era conditions and transcending this context with themes that persist across different eras — its position within the horror canon looks back to previous generations of filmmakers and the legacies of past stylistic movements. The film does this while simultaneously cleaning the genre’s slate, feeling bold, fresh and innovative. This is not least because the Slow Cinema influence of filmmakers like Tsai Ming-Lang is not typically applied to horror legacies, from the David Cronenberg works that We’re All Going to the World’s Fair refers its spectator to (most notably 1983’s Videodrome) to blockbuster franchises like Paranormal Activity (2007), which is namedropped in Schoenbrun’s film.
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We’re All Going to the World’s Fair prefers the space between categories. This position facilitates a unique experience of time, much like the COVID-19 pandemic: the only confirmation that time is passing comes in Casey’s upload dates, but there are often staccato jumps between these, and soon the dates stop entirely and the protagonist’s game is being played outside time. This position is also one of irresolution. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair ends and the spectator never knows definitively if Casey was acting as if the game was affecting her, or if it was in fact affecting her — effects that are as chilling as talking about shooting someone (as she records herself walking through a neon-lit street on New Year’s Eve), and as erratic as destroying the teddy bear (“Poe”) she has had since the age of five or six.
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The spectator also never sees Casey’s father — the only person she is in the same building as at any point of the film — so one cannot be sure that he exists. Like Cobb’s character, the audience must guess. Casey’s own decisions make her feel less alone, though — as she tells her screen: “I see you there, even if you won’t show your face.” As the protagonist speculates at another point in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, “Whoever’s watching this must be a little bit of a lonely person.” But even if the internet provides Casey with a predominantly silent audience, because her address is contained within Schoenbrun’s film, she reaches the people in an auditorium or in front of their TV/computer at home. The protagonist has a following bigger than JLB, and they are listening. Casey and her audience are alone, together.
George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) has just finished a PhD on contemporary fiction at King’s College London, where he also taught American literature for three years. He is both a short fiction and culture writer. George’s recent publications include Avatar Review, BRUISER, Clackamas Literary Review and Watershed Review, and he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ 2019 Short Story Competition. His work can be found at: https://georgeoliverkowalik.wordpress.com/.
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