As tiny and modest as a raw little indie can possibly get, Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair exudes apocalyptic implications. Rarely straying more than a hair’s breadth from its plummeting teenage heroine’s Internet-fried eyeballs, the film nevertheless feels on the edge of something—a peek at the end times from the inside out, or a lurking emotional truth, at least, about a growing up in a world structured on screens and the abyss of elusive humanity behind them.
That’s a lot, and as I’ve said, the film is palm-sized, trapped in the bell jar of a certain girl’s attic bedroom: Casey (Anna Cobb) is a bushbaby-eyed, goth-y high schooler without school, without friends, without human contact (we hear her irate father downstairs, but never see him). The unarticulated loneliness the film musters in every shot is fearsome, but Casey doesn’t mope—she’s engaged in the mysteries of Internet otherworldliness, specifically with the hoaxy “World’s Fair Challenge,” in which you smear blood on your laptop, chant “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times, and then witness a strobe assault. (We don’t see it, just Casey’s face as the strobing reduces it to pixelated non-person-ness.) After which, it is rumored, “changes” and “symptoms” appear, and you start “becoming” something else.
The vague particulars of the urban legend-fad are unimportant, and Casey doesn’t have cause to relate any details about it anyway. There might be nothing to know—as with “real” such phenomena, like 2018’s Momo Challenge, the essence of the thing is its maddening nonexistence. But for Casey, it’s as serious as a ghost sighting. Writer/director Schoenbrun’s agenda is appropriately impressionist, fragmenting Casey’s experience into a subjective mini-cyclone, as she posts videos of herself as she may or may not be “changing,” and attracts the ominous attention of a faceless, voice-masked creepster (Michael Rogers), who wants to protect Casey, he says, and who asks for videos of her sleeping.
That’s it for humanity—excepting the handful of similarly self-posted videos Casey watches, of monologuing World’s Fair victims, one of whom slowly pulls a long ribbon of arcade tickets out of a scabby wound on his arm. By staying so small and evading a concrete story, Schoenbrun’s movie manages to evoke a ghastly contemporary reality, in which Gen Z-ers are semi-lost in a virtual culture of self-created alternative lives summoned out of little more than exhibitionism, lonesomeness, and suicidality, a fringe dimension of delusional drama and stress that’s both more manageable and more mysterious than the real world. For virtually every moment of the movie, we’re wondering how alone Casey actually is—is anybody but that one weirdo watching? She’s like the last girl on Earth, crowing into the void.
Or, of course, one of the hundred million last girls on Earth. The details are painfully right; Schoenbrun sharply musters the claustrophobic phase of life when everything seems to happen on your childhood bed, and when a fantasy life created in your poster-draped, locked-door bedroom can be threateningly intense. Cobb, for her part, seems as much a found creature as a deft performer, with recesses of awkward guilelessness that may not be feigned. Much of the movie is taken up with her staring at screens and directly into her various cameras, at us, gazing with lunar eyes into an electronic scrim that we know very well watches us without ever responding with a mutual gaze. By the end, we’re not sure of anything—except the ominous thrust of Schoenbrun’s ironic title, which deftly speaks to not just one vulnerable teenager, but every one of us. ❖
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair opens Thursday at BAM.