Mom Said It’s MY Turn to Go to the World’s Fair

[grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you violently] DESPERATION AND LONELINESS IN A DIGITAL WORLD! DESPERATION AND LONELINESS IN A DIGITAL WORLD!! This is the essence of Jane Schoenbrun’s 2021 feature-length film debut We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. It’s been several months since I watched it for the first time back in May, and I feel like I still think about it every day; it lurks in the back of my head like some sort of virus and refuses to let up.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair revolves around a teenager named Casey who lives in small-town America with her father (he is never once seen onscreen). Their house is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees and snow and darkness. Alone in her room one night, Casey decides to take part in something called the World’s Fair challenge: she starts up her webcam, pricks her finger, smears the blood on her computer screen, and repeats the phrase “I want to go to the World’s Fair.” Casey seeks solace in the community of online users who have participated in the challenge, too, obsessively watching videos documenting the bizarre changes that happen to their bodies. Engulfed by the glow of her laptop, these are her only friends.

Casey’s contributions to the challenge amass little success, until she begins receiving messages from an older stranger who has started to fear for her safety. When Casey’s World’s Fair videos become increasingly concerning, the stranger attempts to prevent her from causing herself and others harm. Although Casey assures the stranger that she has control over her own actions, it’s at this point that it becomes difficult to discern what is fact or fiction — a fucked up roleplaying game or something with dangerously real consequences.

The most staggering thing about We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is how genuine it is. It’s a perfect depiction of what it’s like to exist on the internet today — a sympathetic salute to the chronically online. On the surface, it’s a horror film about how treacherous the internet can be when users delve too deep, but that is not entirely the point. Seeing this in a theater back in September, I was surprised to see that the audience was mostly older adults. I had to wonder how much they knew about ARGs or weird internet challenges or Creepypastas — the basis for the film’s most disturbing aspects. Did they find all that stuff silly and immature? Harmful, even? I am reminded of those girls who nearly killed their friend in an attempt to summon Slenderman a few years back, and freaky stories from kids I knew in middle school who would talk to internet randos they considered friends on the daily. But I think what We’re All Going to the World’s Fair implies is that there is an arguably innocent intent behind all this. These seemingly dark and shady corners of the internet our parents warn us about might as well be the only places some of us, like Casey, can find a place to belong. Maybe this is done out of boredom, or maybe it’s a longing to fit in when the real world refuses to afford us that. Does Casey mean what she says when she makes all those troubling videos? Or is it all just an act — a plea for acceptance shouted out to the algorithmic void? In the end, that’s for her (and no one else) to decide.

As someone who spent every day of her teenage years on the internet, it is inseparable from my identity then. I relate heavily to Casey’s attempts at finding herself in an Extremely Online World, as I was once deeply entrenched in my own bedroom boredom, trying to create alternate realities for myself as a sad thirteen-year-old on roleplaying Tumblr. Another important thing to mention here is that We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is scored by Alex G, an artist I stumbled upon through the web when I was in high school. His compositions for the film aren’t dissimilar from his regular music, but that is certainly fitting. I’m transported back to lying awake late at night, listening to his song “Sandy” on repeat (My insides are changing but right now I just wanna grow up). I’m sure Casey would have done the same. It’s things like this, Schoenbrun’s complete understanding of isolation and melancholy, that make the film the most accurate portrayal of the digital age I’ve seen to date.

Although it premiered virtually at Sundance this January, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair officially comes out in theaters April 2022. It’ll be on HBO Max afterwards, from what I’ve heard. I can’t wait to see it again and again so I can continually analyze it to pieces. I hope you all do, too.

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Briana Gonzalez

Briana Gonzalez is a 22-year-old film and journalism student. In her free time, she runs a zine called Danger Zone.