Jane Schoenbrun’s feature debut, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, has been travelling the globe on the festival circuit for the last few months now. Along the way it has steadily been building up traction and has become one of the most talked about films doing the rounds. Ahead of this writer’s own viewing I had heard nothing but good things, with many fellow critics already touting it as their film of the year. Impressive accolades for any film, let alone a first attempt.
Part of what is now being termed the screen-life sub-genre, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair joins teenager Casey (Anna Cob) as she signs up for online role playing game, ‘World’s Fair Challenge’. The horror game has a bit of a reputation of getting weird, but undeterred Casey enlists and begins documenting her experience. Casey’s video diary starts ordinary enough, but quickly becomes a catalogue of the ways in which the game may or may not be altering Casey herself. It’s a tricksy story to fully bolt down, Schoenbrun deviating from the traditional formulaic version of a three act structure, allowing the film to be more fluid. This fluidity hooks the viewer early on, its strangeness to the norm titillating the senses and making them shuffle ever closer to the screen so as to not miss anything.
The overarching themes play to the teenage experience and our consumption and interaction with the cyber world. So much of our lives are playing out in a virtual arena these days that many forget that it isn’t the safest of playgrounds. Schoenbrun demonstrates all of these pitfalls, whilst at the same time casting a light on how dependent the younger generation have become on their screens. We see no interactions between Casey and people in real-life, her online world is her domain. It’s a tragic story, the clues we do see about Casey’s real-life point to a deceased parent and an absent one, Casey retreating into the online space to find comfort and connection. What makes it worse is that this is a very real scenario for many people, and although this film goes to some extreme places, it’s the truth operating in the background that is the root cause of the horror.
Joining Schoenbrun for a first stab at filmmaking is lead Anna Cob. As the plot of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair revolves around Casey, Cob is in almost every frame. This much screen time is a daunting prospect for even the most mature and seasoned professional, and for Cob to approach it with such gusto straight out of the blocks points to a very strong future. Cob’s performance here is the epitome of star-making as she lures the audience into this dark and disturbing tale. The role of Casey is intense. Cob has to traverse many emotions, not only over the course of the film, but sometimes from scene-to-scene. One sequence that really stands out has Casey doing a happy dance, this suddenly is interrupted by a fit of screaming, before quickly returning to normal. It’s an unnerving scene to watch playout, and one that might have come across as funny if performed by a different actor. Here it is just pure terror. Casey communicates with the world around her via the computer screen and much of Cob’s acting is played directly to camera. There’s lots of long sequences where Cob does nothing but stare directly into the eyes of the viewer, just another example of how the simplest thing creates tension and unease in this movie. Cob’s compelling turn is hard to turn away from, even as the story elements begin to veer towards some uncomfortable ideas. The textbook definition of mesmerising performance, we cannot wait to see what the young actor gets up to next.
Technically, Schoenbrun is bursting with visual flourishes and clever editing choices. All work to disorientate the viewer, sending them spiralling down a neon soaked and distorted rabbit-hole. The original music from Alex G acts as the pulsating pulse of the piece and helps transport the audience to an entirely unique headspace. Beautifully realised and stunningly acted, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair plays out like the indie weird second-cousin of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, and therefore has to be seen. Magic strikes on the first attempt for both filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun and lead Anna Cobs in this arresting and astounding exploration of the transformative powers of technology.
This review was first posted on THN.