Sundance Review: 'We're All Going to the World's Fair' Captures the Dread and Magic of a Life Lived Online

Directed by Jane Schoenbrun

Starring Anna Cobb, Michael J. Rogers

BY Josiah HughesPublished Feb 2, 2021

There was a brief moment, many years ago, when real life and the internet were separate entities, and the distinctions between IRL and URL were clear. Of course, as everyone can attest, the online sphere has quickly become our main living space as we spend every waking moment staring deep into our phones, computers and other devices. Films, then, have attempted to reflect this experience by demonstrating life online, but it's often incredibly hokey (the trashily fun Unfriended series) or overly fatalistic (the dark web thriller Searching).

Rather than stay entirely within the confines of a laptop screen, Jane Schoenbrun's We're All Going to the World's Fair succeeds by placing a solo life online within the broader context of modern human alienation. The result is a chilling drama that pulls double duty, representing both the sinister corners of esoteric internet communities and the external human isolation that feeds the beast online.

Thanks to a complex, layered and lived-in performance by newcomer Anna Cobb, the film sees us spend the bulk of our time with Casey. She's a completely alienated teen who spends all of her waking (and sleeping) hours watching online videos about the World's Fair, a creepypasta that changes human beings in their entirety when they participate in a ritual that involves wiping blood on their computer screen. Through the World's Fair community, she befriends a mysterious and strange older man named JLB (Michael J. Rogers, matching the unnerving energy he brought to Beyond the Black Rainbow).

There are times when World's Fair is downright bone-chilling, but it's not really a thriller. Instead, the film is more of a slow, meditative brood, as Casey makes questionable decisions and occasionally seems to snap on webcam. Thanks to the hyper-realism of the film's auxiliary elements, the "World's Fair" creepypasta feels all the more real, and it's almost easy to become hypnotized by its lore. Long, uncut scenes add to the trance-like feeling of the film, which reaches its peak with a lengthy ASMR scene courtesy of a real YouTuber. In fact, the entire film has elements of ASMR with textural sounds like wind blowing and gentle late-night Skype chats of Casey and JLB.

Wisely, the life spent online is countered with natural elements including shots of icy forests and ugly strip malls, hand-written titles and a soundtrack built on the signature slacker guitars of Alex G. The result is something that feels far less fatalistic and more quietly melancholic, like a Kelly Reichardt film if she knew anything about the internet.

It'd be easy to push a film like this into melodrama or insert an on-the-nose warning along the lines of The Social Dilemma, but World's Fair is less a cautionary tale than it is a work of art. If anything, Schoenbrun's work is almost aggressively neutral, leaving the viewer with the work of parsing the boundaries of online relationships and making our own decisions about whether or not they're acceptable. But it feels like something bigger, too. Considering how much of our lives are spent in weird corners of the world wide web, We're All Going to the World's Fair is a meditation on loneliness and connection writ large.
(Flies Collective)

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