Social isolation stories are a dime a dozen in film, especially those coupled with ‘coming of age’ themes set within broken family scenarios. We’re All Going to The World’s Fair certainly taps into all of this, but it does so in a uniquely disquieting way that disturbs just as much as it breaks your heart. That it achieves this using the language of horror, in subtle ways, makes it all the more outstanding.
Written, edited, and directed by Jane Schoenbrun, We’re All Going to The World’s Fair follows a girl called Casey as she takes on a social media challenge called “the World’s Fair.” It’s a combination of Creepypasta urban legend stuff with TikTok-like content creation sensibilities. The challenge is supposed to cause bizarre bodily changes (as if it were more of a gradual takeover of the body) while also warping the subject’s own sense of reality.
Casey (played by Anna Cobb) starts experiencing the challenge’s symptoms, but whether this is all imagined or not depends on how credible a shared online horror experience can be. This is made more complicated by Casey’s home situation, which the audience only gets flashes of. It’s up to them to piece it together, but it’s clear things don’t bode well in her house.
Going to The World’s Fair is a difficult movie to classify. The viral challenge aspect carries a mystery that gives just enough to put the story in horror territory, but it’s not the driving force behind it. It’s a vehicle for the movie’s intimate portrayal of Casey’s psyche. Her isolation from any meaningful human interaction that’s not filtered through a computer is where the movie truly finds ways to unsettle. Some might be tempted to call it a ‘coming of age’ yarn with light horror elements, but this also doesn’t do it justice. I settled on isolation horror, a kind of genre expression that looks at an individual psyche to explore the things that scare us when we’re left almost completely alone.
Anna Cobb’s performance is the reason why this works so well. Cobb makes Casey’s mental anguish and frustrations constantly bleed through her body language. She looks haunted in very single frame she’s in. The social media element accentuates this thanks to Schoenbrun’s decision to establish a kind of distance between Casey and the videos she sees on her computer. She’s never just hunched over a computer screen. She’s usually lying in bed, watching videos from a short distance. It creates the sensation she’s peering into someone else’s life rather than actively engaging with them online.
There’s an interesting wrinkle added to this in the form of a character called “JLB” (played by Michael J. Rogers) that pushes Casey further down the digital rabbit hole. His interactions with her are also weird, fractured even, and do a lot to further establish Casey’s isolation. His unstable presence, along with the viral challenge’s influence, managed to keep me on the lookout for something terrible or somewhat supernatural lurking in the background. I never found anything of the sort, but that was because all I needed was to stay in the situation with Casey, to embrace the painful proximity we have with her based on how close she can be to the camera.
In a sense, the horror on display here is of the same type more indie/arthouse productions go for, meaning there’s nothing outright revealed as supernatural. The door is always open to interpretation, to varying degrees depending on the story. Fans of movies like Toad Road (2012) will find a lot to love here. In that movie, a group of relatively young characters embroiled in the excesses of drugs are paired with a dark urban legend that flirts with the idea that Hell or a hidden realm filled with terrible sights can be reached by walking a particular path deep in the woods.
While this movie does commit more to the supernatural than Going to The World’s Fair, there’s a similar sensation regarding the horrors of reality versus the horrors of myths that turn out to be true. Those looking for more of this type of horror should go watch Toad Road. When things descend into outright terror, it gets really dark. It shares that haunting quality that permeates throughout World’s Fair.
Going to The World’s Fair also boasts a remarkable soundtrack, created by Alex G, that plays with synth and retro sounds to best capture the digital horror world Casey traverses. There’s purpose behind each piece and they color certain sequences in ways that make them stand out individually. It’s as if Alex G gave every phase of the challenge a different theme that identifies or signals some change in it. It’s hard to think about the movie without thinking about the music that weaves itself through it.
Jane Schoenbrun crafts a sad tale of a girl struggling with loneliness in a world where social media doesn’t just isolate people but also puts them on a path that might or might not trap you inside another state of consciousness dictated by horror. It impresses in its subtlety, in its ability to foster the strange without losing sight of character. We’re All Going to The World’s Fair is haunting. I would even argue it’s intentions is to actually haunt viewers. It achieved that with me, and I won’t soon be forgetting it.