'We're All Going to the World's Fair': Film Review | Sundance 2021

We're All Going to the World's Fair - Sundance Film Festival - Publicity - H 2021
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A tender and intimate teenage journey.

An online role-playing game sends a teenage girl on a path of self-exploration in writer-director Jane Schoenbrun's debut feature.

In the last 20 years, as the internet steadily integrated itself into every facet of our lives, adolescence has been changed radically. No longer forced into interactions with other people their age by circumstance, more and more teens have found themselves alone on their computers, phones and tablets for immeasurable lengths of time. This has lead to personal discovery divorced from the physical — teens are left to explore their bodies and draw their own conclusions based on whatever information they can find. Though the internet offers a wealth of resources, it’s spread out across countless webpages that one can only find by going down a number of rabbit holes. How can someone find what they’re looking for if they don’t know what it is? In general, self-discovery usually occurs by accident, within our chosen online communities. Over time, RPGs (role-playing games) have become an increasingly important vehicle for identity play. That’s what writer-director Jane Schoenbrun’s debut feature We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is all about.

The film tells the story of Casey (Anna Cobb, in her feature film debut), an isolated teen in an unnamed rural town. She spends most of her time making videos, all of which receive minimal views. Even when she’s outside, going on long walks in the woods and along the highways, she brings her camera, recording her thoughts to upload later. Though we spend the majority of the runtime with Casey, we never get to know any more than what she tells us. Even her name is withheld from us — she's Casey for her videos, but there’s no telling what she’s actually called.

The only person she speaks to directly in the film is a man (Michael J. Rogers) she meets over Skype; he is also never named. Both of them are lonely people, grasping at a small yet meaningful connection over a mysterious horror RPG called The World’s Fair. Casey joins the game by pricking her finger and wiping the blood onto her computer monitor while reciting the phrase “I want to go to The World’s Fair” three times. Once she’s in the game, she begins to gradually change, getting angrier and more introspective. Screen depictions of puberty often revolve around young love and social conflict. But with Casey, the journey is internal; she uses the game to dig into the depths of her mind. And since she spends most of her time alone, there’s no one around to pull her out.

But as her videos become more disturbing, the mysterious man on the other side of the screen begins to take on a parental role in her life. Casey has an actual father, but she avoids him. In one telling scene, she watches his car pull up outside the window and quietly takes her meal up to her room without greeting him. We never see her father onscreen.

There are unmistakable themes of dysphoria in the film, demonstrated by Casey using the game to experiment with her own presentation. In one explosive scene, she covers her face in glow-in-the-dark paint and destroys her favorite childhood toy. Afterward, the tone in her voice changes from menacing to remorseful as if she’s been pulled out of the game back into her physical body.

We get to know Casey by what she watches, but more importantly, how the camera watches her. We are often positioned as the screen she’s looking at, functioning as some of the few witnesses to her self-expression. The use of dark and glowing lights in the film illuminates the loneliness of her journey.

The music, scored by indie artist Alex G, is slow and melancholy. The sound adds gravity to every scene. Coupled with the slow, deliberate pace of the film, it pushes us as to sit with Casey and witness every small detail of her emotion. Cobb’s face is a canvas for a world of yearning that can’t fully be revealed to us because she doesn’t have the language to articulate it yet. That truth allows the film to feel both specific and universal at the same time. We all are seen and unseen simultaneously; there is no way to reveal the entirety of our souls, not even when we stare directly into the camera wanting desperately to be understood.

In one of the film’s most tender scenes, Casey is in a barn watching an ASMR video on a projector. On the screen is a woman looking softly into the camera repeating soothing phrases. She wants whoever is watching to calm their mind and go to sleep. She repeats shushing sounds as Casey watches quietly, trying to allow herself to relax. When you’re that age, your mind is a fever of rage, sadness and confusing desires. Much like that video, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a warm hand for those still trying to figure themselves out. It’s alright not to know everything yet. Give it time.

Venue: Sundance (NEXT)
Production companies: Dweck Productions Presents, Flies Collective
Cast: Anna Cobb, Matt J Rogers
Writer-director-editor: Jane Schoenbrun
Producers: Sarah Winshall & Carlos Zozaya
Executive producers: David Lowry, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Zachary Shedd, Matthew Petock, Hannah Dweck, Theodore Shaefer
Director of photography: Daniel Patrick Carbone
Production designer: Grace Sloan
Original Music: Alex G
Costume designer: Abby Harri
Casting: Abby Harri

86 min.