In the unexceptional desolate American landscapes long left behind by capitalism, where an AutoZone almost registers as somewhere exciting, it’s only natural to recede into the world of the internet, as Casey (Anna Cobb) does, a young teenage girl who posts videos to basically no-one—including many about the ‘world’s fair challenge’, a ritual-come-role-play that’s in some way supposed to change your inner self—and so when she gets a creepy response from someone calling themselves JLB (Michael J. Rogers) the music rings with a strange sense of hope; in such a barren place any kind of contact is something to cling to. Jane Schoenbrun’s first feature, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021), isn’t exactly the horror movie it’s been softly marketed as, not because it isn’t scary, sometimes it is very much so, but because it doesn’t buy into the titular challenge, it’s not something occult or even metaphorical, it’s just a rough mash-up of flimsy pop culture signifiers of darkness, including this as bereft of imagination and meaning as scary clowns and Paranormal Activity (2007). In one of the many YouTube videos that fill ever more of the movie, a boy describes his internal transformation, this supposedly profound change, as like someone playing Tetris inside him.
These young people are channeling their inner lives, trying to express themselves, not just through repurposed corporate images, a branded ennui, but in the language and structure of corporate mediums that will inevitably speak back through them. The YouTube trance, where one video slips into another for what could be hours, often so deep into the night it all just washes over you, glass-eyed and half-awake—visualised so perfectly with the loading spiral animation—is driven by the whims of an algorithm that tends towards the dark both emotionally, and as seen in a note on the corner of JLB’s desktop reminding him to check the latest Qanon drops, politically. (Whilst Schoenbrun and her team have created the most convincing legally distinct replicas of social media sites I’ve ever seen in a movie, both in visuals and in substance, there is still a sense of absence, of course anyone would know what is being referred to but it seems perverse that copyright is used to stop people from speaking in no uncertain terms about these platforms that so define our lives; Casey is hardly alone in spending more time online than off.)
Casey’s feelings aren’t conjured from the internet, even if their expression is defined by it, her desire to be made into “someone else” that she’s “always felt” will be recognisable to most any trans person, especially those of us who grew up without knowing we were even a possibility, that being transgender existed at all, an experience or unmooring that aligns so perfectly with the totally decentralised online world. Not that this is so distinct from the broader teenage experience, going through the correct puberty can still easily lead into hyperawareness, becoming so attuned to every little change it’s as if they can be literally felt, especially alongside a new swirl of powerful and irrational emotions. Without words to frame something so intense, it really only makes sense to latch onto whatever seems to justify it, in a brilliantly observed ASMR scene we see the relationship between darkness, at least as Casey sees it, and comfort as the motherly repetitions of “it’s all okay now” and “close your eyes” become like incantations, a hypnosis, a lulling to sleep in multiple senses.
But to reach the point of this kind of metaphor-as-reality thinking requires such a blurring, JLB talks about his channel being ‘in-game’ as if that means anything in practice, you can claim online as subordinate to ‘irl’ but when you live in it, you act it out, primarily if not exclusively, it’s very hard to believe, especially in such isolation as Casey, where her father only once responds to all the late-night smashing and screaming. Anything not posted is designed to feel half-real, and so for thoughts to be valid they must be expressed, they must be performed, constructed as posts; the line between internal and external blurring, and after enough time of construction for its own sake, to keep up with the algorithm and to keep ahold of any small speck of attention you might get, even just the potential for attention, many slip into a place where the difference between an edgy twitter joke and a genuine cry from help are indistinguishable to others and most important to themselves.
However conscious they are—in one video Casey breaks down into a fit of screaming in the middle of a dance I find it hard to imagine her wanting to film otherwise—her performances are unquestionably quite silly, but that’s almost sadder than the deeper feelings hidden far underneath them, that she finds still wanting the comfort of her childhood plush toy to speak to such a personal failing that she, whilst supposedly possessed by the world’s fair curse, feels she has to tear it apart and stomp in into the ground, is heart-breaking. The darker fantasies, like when in a video she ruminates about killing her dad with the gun he keeps hidden away, we intuitively know won’t happen; it’s no surprise the destruction doesn’t go much further than a plush toy, maybe because the metaphorical way of thinking, suicide by becoming someone else, saves her from manifesting those feelings more literally, or maybe it’s that thinking that has so pathologised deeply normal feelings, she only wants to feel grown up, and is in the phase of parental resentment that even people with the most loving families tend to go through.
The film is very atmospheric and even quite consuming, but Schoenbrun isn’t trying to simulate Casey’s experience exactly, shown by one of their most striking and unintuitive choices, very quickly we see JLB in person, he isn’t allowed to become the mysterious and figurative presence he is for Casey, he is shown simply as he is: a middle aged man and a real person. (We don’t see many details of his life, but that’s true of Casey too, neither seem to have many to speak of.) This gives the ambiguity of their relationship not the sense of lost souls finding each other amongst the darkness, the image he intentionally curates, but an unpleasant charge that’s given explicit form when Casey, angry he broke the illusion by saying that he’s worried about her outside of the ‘game’—which may well be less a breaking than a deepening, an attempt to extend their relationship beyond the performance—and she calls him a pedo. It hangs so heavy in the air and is only left unclear because it is for JLB himself, though of a very different kind, he too is acting on impulses he doesn’t understand; neither of them can say what they want because they do not know.
This subtle distance we are kept at, which allows us to see as well as to feel, seems to waver in an ending where Casey gets to live our her fantasies, as she ghosts JLB, suddenly vanishing from his life, she also vanishes from the film, in her last scene she disappears into a compressed digital void. Though being left to align with JLB is another choice strange enough to make you think about, we’re not left to wallow in Casey’s mythologising, his story of later reconciling with her quickly reveals itself to be a thinly veiled fantasy of someone siting alone in their room. It’s a conclusion that’s both mysterious and painfully material; a self-conscious non-ending perhaps because as one of the first to really reckon with these ideas so directly, Schoenbrun recognises the problems more than the solutions, and to pretend otherwise would ring false. After all, much like capitalism that spawning it, part of the internet’s great power is in its ability to block out other possibilities, it seems unimaginable to live without it, even by those who lively have. I think that’s why, even though it seems intuitive—and will naturally be the case more often than not with a movie like this—to watch it on a laptop, I found it particularly valuable to see on the big screen, at a slight remove from the all-consuming world it depicts, immersed, but far enough away to see a little of the edges.