Every generation of adolescents is divided from the one before in some sense, but the internet is less a divide than a gaping canyon: Someone who didn’t grow up online from early childhood can never fully share the other half’s view of the world, and vice versa. In years past, that impasse led to some distinctly alarmist, out-of-touch films about the perils of screen-centered life — Hideo Nakata’s dreadful “Chatroom” and Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women and Children” come to mind — that glibly stressed alienation over community, with precious little attempt to bridge the gap in perspective. At once tender and rattling, Jane Schoenbrun’s “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” does feel like an evolution in this respect: an exploration of the world (and parallel worlds) of online role-playing game culture that is equally alive to its manifold dangers and possibilities for self-realization.
Writer-director-editor Schoenbrun covered some of this terrain to more experimental effect in their 2018 documentary “A Self-Induced Hallucination,” in which the internet mythology of Slenderman was unpacked via an immersive, inventively sequenced array of found YouTube footage: In contrast to other documentaries on the phenomenon, it made a strangely calm sense of a subject often couched in dramatically cautionary terms. Their first narrative feature, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is more conventional in construction, but similarly takes a distanced, imperturbable approach to the stuff of many parents’ nightmares. Whether that makes it more reassuring or more unnerving will depend very much on the viewer. One of the more striking titles of this year’s Sundance NEXT selection, Schoenbrun’s film will continue to stir discussion on the festival circuit — where, appropriately enough, it will largely be viewed in a virtual capacity.
With its liberal use of webcam perspective, smartphone shooting and the recurring, near-hypnotic motif of a humble buffering wheel, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” is a work of cinema that has nonetheless been slyly conceived for the small screens on which baby-faced teen Casey (promising newcomer Anna Cobb) spends most of her waking hours. We meet her in an unbroken eight-minute webcam shot from her attic bedroom, during which she signs up for the “World’s Fair Challenge,” billed as “the internet’s scariest horror game”: It’s advertised as having a spookily transformative effect on its participants, but Casey, sat beside her favorite childhood plush toy, is unfazed. “I love horror movies and thought it might be cool to try living in one,” she says matter-of-factly.
Various tricked-out videos from other World’s Fair gamers play up its eeriness: One claims to be turning to plastic, while another serves up “Poltergeist”-like imagery of hands emerging from the laptop screen and pulling him in. Such silliness, along with the game’s rituals of finger-pricking and blood-smearing, aren’t much more terrifying than summer-camp ghost stories and Ouija-board hijinks of yore.
The real threat, of course, is more everyday than occult, as Casey is steadily befriended online by a fellow player identified only as JLB — eventually revealed, in a jarring shift from the film’s otherwise wholly child-oriented point of view, to be a middle-aged man (Canadian horror stalwart Michael J. Rogers, cleverly cast), whose flattery of her melancholic, diary-style videos and professed empathy with her social isolation are textbook online grooming tactics.
Yet while the setup of Schoenbrun’s film lends itself to panicked, high-stakes psychodrama, it takes a less expected tack. It’s Casey herself, rather than any surrounding authorities, who must find a way to protect herself in this situation: The game may not transform her in any of the grisly ways promised, yet she assertively matures before our eyes in what amounts to an unusually intimate, interior coming-of-age study.
Enabling that focus is Schoenbrun’s decision to keep both Casey and JLB’s offline lives almost entirely off-screen: Her parents register only in the occasional yell from downstairs, we see nothing of her school hours, while the question of who exactly shares JLB’s large, lavishly appointed house with him is left unanswered. This suspends proceedings halfway between the characters’ constructed personae and their banal respective realities, counting on viewers’ preconceptions to fill in certain gaps — yet reminding us all the while we may not be seeing the whole picture on either side. “Casey,” as she points out, may not even be her real name.
This places a lot of porous ambiguity on the actors’ shoulders, and Cobb carries it with persuasive, unaffected assurance, maintaining a consistent sense of Casey’s girlish uncertainty even as she tries on various other poses and identities for size. Schoenbrun, meanwhile, uses a minimum of formal gimmickry to keep us in her world, chosen and otherwise. Eli Cohn’s sound design resourcefully incorporates ASMR techniques to evoke her headspace, while DP Daniel Patrick Carbone (who knows a thing or two about prickly adolescent anxiety, having directed the 2013 festival standout “Hide Your Smiling Faces”) alternates between bland, flat daylight and the neon-flecked cocoon of her online witching-hour missives. Either way, the camera holds the impassive, almost inhuman gaze of an electronic device throughout.