Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

'We're All Going To The World's Fair' offers creepy coming-of-age film

Worlds fair Anna.jpeg
Casey (Anna Cobb) decides to take the World's Fair Challenge in the new indie film "We're All Going To The World's Fair."

The creepy coming-of-age indie film "We’re All Going To the World’s Fair" had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021. It opens this weekend at Digital Gym Cinema.

We're All Going to the World's Fair | Official Trailer | Utopia

A teenage girl sits alone in front of her computer screen late at night. She seems to be recording a video, but then we realize it was just a practice run as she rearranges things in her bedroom so that it looks just as she wants to present it to the world. Then she turns on her camera and records a little intro where she informs viewers: "Casey here, welcome to my channel, today I’m going to be taking the World’s Fair Challenge."


That challenge involves an online role-playing horror game that promises to take you someplace dark. And that’s exactly where Jane Schoenbrun wants to take audiences in her film debut "We’re All Going To the World’s Fair." But the darkness she wants to examine may not be what you'd expect.

The film falls into a subgenre of horror referred to as creepypasta. Since I still consume most of my horror in cinemas, this is not a genre that I am well-versed in as it is mostly user-generated offerings of scary stories shared online. It is sort of like this generation's form of Goosebumps and Fear Street books, or a less-kiddy version of "Scooby-Doo," but it's stuff that is both scary and fun. Creepypasta taps into that vibe but uses the internet instead of books and TV. It also taps into the notion of urban legends and tales passed around to scare each other.

Schoenbrun's film uses the idea of a horror game that's never really fully explored or explained. It's the "MacGuffin," which millennials probably have never heard of but older audiences who grew up with the scares of Alfred Hitchcock will recognize as the thing you think the film is about but which turns out to be totally insignificant (like the money Janet Leigh steals in "Psycho").

Worlds fair.jpg
Anna Cobb makes her film debut as Casey in "We're All Going To The World's Fair."

So Casey — played by Anna Cobb in her film debut — taking the World's Fair challenge is just the thing to get the film in motion and allows Schoenbrun to explore what the internet is offering to people like Casey.


Schoenbrun's film is both creepy and mundane. If you choose to get sucked into Casey's world and choose to believe what you are shown about the potential dangers of taking the challenge then the film may indeed be scary. But if you are a cynical baby boomer like myself, you may just question everything you see and not buy into any of it. And the great thing about the film is that either way, the film still works.

Cobb is stunning. She fully embraces that Casey (if that is even her real name) could be a lonely, vulnerable child or a master of manipulation, or maybe both. We see Casey scroll through videos about the bizarre things that have happened to other people who have taken the World's Fair Challenge but Schoenbrun leaves it up to each viewer to decide why Casey is doing that and how she is using the information she finds. Is she trying to prepare herself for things that might happen? Is it research to prepare how to make her own videos in the hopes they could go viral? Is she being influenced by the videos to imagine that certain things will happen? We don't know what the definitive answer is. And since so much of what happens in the film happens for Casey's camera, we never know what is real and what is part of her performance.

But we do see Casey very carefully construct what she presents to the world through her channel videos. She checks what is visible to the audience, moves objects that she wants to hide or reveal, and basically does a low-grade production design before going live. We know she has a father but there seems to be no intimacy or warmth in their relationship. When Casey hears her father drive up late at night, she immediately exits to her attic bedroom and closes the door. And when she is playing a video loudly at 3:00 a.m., her dad bangs on the door to tell her to be quiet but never asks if she is ok since she is obviously not able or willing to go to sleep at a time most school children are in bed.

Michael Rogers plays JLB in "We're All Going To The World's Fair."

Adding another layer to decipher is an adult man Casey meets online. His online name is simply JLB — played by Michael Rogers — and he never reveals himself to her. All he shows her is a rather disturbing looking hand-drawn avatar. He voices concern for her but his interactions feel just a bit creepy. He lives in a big empty house, we briefly see someone in the background but is it a housekeeper, his mom, a wife? We never find out. But he seems to choose private locations to interact with her online and at one point watches a video of her dancing while he's sitting on the toilet. Is he a pedophile or just a lonely guy? We don't know and that is part of the point. Casey, who has even less information about the guy than we do, has no clue who he is or what his motives are or if he's dangerous.

The film is slow, and, on a certain level, not much happens. Maybe Casey wants to imagine that crazy things are happening to her to break the monotony of her life. Or maybe she just wants her audience to think that. And then we have to wonder who her audience is — views on her videos are always extremely low — and who she thinks it is. Maybe she is doing everything just for JLB. She does one video that seems specifically aimed at just him.

The ambiguity of the film is the ambiguity of any random interaction you might have on the internet. Schoenbrun plays this up by turning her budget limitations into an advantage by exploring the world almost entirely from Casey’s bedroom. The narrowness of that focus proves effective in conveying Casey’s life and her desire to escape from it. I am not sure when it was filmed but it feels very much like a pandemic movie in how everyone is completely isolated. The claustrophobic view of the world also points to what the film is ultimately about, which is loneliness, and how people try to cope with that. The true horror may lie in the uncertain and less-than-ideal ways the internet can foster connections.

The ending only intensifies that feeling and also a sense of unease. Just because a character looks unflinchingly into the lens and tells us what has happened doesn't mean that the information is true on any level. Being what I feel is an outsider to Casey's internet existence, I look in on this film and see it as a commentary about the difficulty of discerning what's real and what's fake on the internet, what to believe and what to question.

Schoenbrun's "We're All Going To the World's Fair" is the kind of film I love because it does not tell you what happens and it does not tell you what to think. It just presents a story and leaves you to figure it all out. The fact that you may walk away thinking about something radically different than me is part of what makes it good art. It's not a film with answers, but rather one that provokes questions. And that is something to be celebrated.