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We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is in UK cinemas now.  

It’s hard not to be alarmist about the internet’s effect on our precious youth, as the line between reality and unreality becomes increasingly blurred. The internet is the new video games, and lends itself to the same reactionary conversations about violence and loneliness.

Similarly, it’s difficult to depict the social isolation the internet breeds because there’s nothing interesting, stylish or inherently cinematic about it. Who wants to watch people staring at their phones? Jane Schoenbrun, already a connoisseur of the weirdest parts of the internet from their 2018 documentary A Self-Induced Hallucination – about Slenderman, a fictional internet spectre most known for inspiring a real-life stabbing in Wisconsin – neatly circumvents both of these problems in their first narrative feature.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair reminded me of a horror version of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018): it possesses the same compassion for and understanding of its young protagonist. Schoenbrun has no interest in making an argument about the negative effects of technology, and their film is stronger for it. Most strikingly, for a film about the internet, that cruel meme-making machine, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is devoid of cynicism.

Casey (sensitively played by Anna Cobb in her feature film debut) is looking for something, and who can blame her? She lives in the bland expanse of upstate New York, has no schoolfriends to speak of and a seemingly strained relationship with her father. Her life has been emptied out – as if to reinforce this, Schoenbrun often positions her at the edge of a frame, walking down a road alone, sitting opposite an empty chair at a long dinner table.

These choices are effective: the eye of the webcam is the natural destination for a young girl seeking nothing as heady as admiration, but only confirmation that she is alive. The film starts with her clutching her teddy bear and committing to take part in the World’s Fair, an online game that involves cutting your finger, and repeating, “I want to go to the World’s Fair” three times.

Casey is a horror movie fan (Paranormal Activity is a reference point), and she thinks, like the juvenile she is, that it would be fun to live in a horror movie for a while. You get the impression Casey would be happy to live anywhere else: her only interaction with her father is when he pounds on her attic bedroom floor to tell her to stop playing videos at three in the morning.

It’s the potential for transformation Casey is after, for anything good or bad to happen. The technology may change but the same teenage impulse remains. Casey watches videos from other participants in the World’s Fair challenge: a woman who claims she is turning to plastic, a man who pulls funfair tickets from his arm in an elaborate gag.

We're All Going to the World’s Fair (2022)
We're All Going to the World’s Fair (2022)
© Courtesy of Lightbulb Film Distribution

The videos are both goofy and grim, like the internet itself. The viewer then observes Casey’s content – her intense, wideeyed stare at the camera, an out-of-character dance routine – for signs of malign influence. But we’re not the only ones watching: Schoenbrun switches focus to JLB (Michael J. Rogers), a World’s Fair fanatic troubled by Casey’s latest videos.

He contacts her, emphasising his secret knowledge of the game, his ability to look after her, their special connection. Schoenbrun takes us into JLB’s home, a strangely empty McMansion, where JLB draws scratchy pictures of a scary man, or sits riveted at his computer. Is he protector or predator?

The strengths and weaknesses of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair are intertwined. Schoenbrun’s refusal to define Casey and JLB’s relationship – who is playing who? who has the upper hand? – is smart, but allows for little plot development. The movie is as scattered as the internet itself, often just a collection of unrelated images, which occasionally makes for a frustrating viewing experience.

The film suffers when Cobb is off screen, or we move from the claustrophobia of Casey’s bedroom. She is the heart of the movie; JLB doesn’t convince either as a threat or a saviour. Still, this is a confident, psychologically acute film from Schoenbrun that suggests more to come. We’ll all be watching and waiting by our computers. Then again, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair makes a strong argument for going outside.