Twenty-two years into the millennium, there is an entire generation (and counting) of young people who’ve grown up in an entirely online age. Now young adults, they’ve never known a world where phones were attached to walls (and the phrase “hang up the phone” meant something literal), where there wasn’t an app for everything, and where their social networks weren’t limited to just those who lived on their street and attended their school. Filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun’s debut feature film, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, zooms in on one such very-online teenager, Casey (Anna Cobb), who discovers a retro online role-playing game and decides to see if the online rumors of its side effects are true. Filmed in part from the perspective of Casey’s webcam and relying heavily on a user-generated video aesthetic, this thin but effective production feels impressively of-the-moment.
Cobb carries much of the film’s success on her able shoulders, often the only actor on screen for long stretches of the film. We meet her in front of her computer, working through a few takes to get just the right first video announcing that she’s taking the World’s Fair challenge. There’s a chant (a la “Bloody Mary,” for us ’90s tweens), a blood ritual (ick) and then a video we never see but understand to be captivating. Soon, Casey is searching online for the kinds of symptoms she can expect as the ripple effects from her little experiment start to kick in. Videos depict all sorts of odd happenings and testimonials, and it’s likely no accident that some of the symptoms she discovers soon begin to present themselves in Casey, too. Social media influence at its worst, or something more devious?
The only other named character in the film is a “friend” Casey makes online, JLB (Michael J Rogers); they video chat briefly and this older man, who never turns on his own webcam, insists he’s just worried about Casey and her well-being, having seen the challenge wreak havoc on others who’ve attempted it. The disorder of this relationship is immediately evident, as online and in person it’s always creepy for a grown man to engage with a teenage girl. But Casey doesn’t have many people even paying attention to her progress through this odd experience, so she’s willing to keep engaging with this stranger she never would’ve encountered IRL (as the kids say).
The coming-of-age genre is nothing new, but Schoenbrun manages to find an interesting and contemporary new angle from which to approach this key moment in Casey’s life. This isn’t the story of a first kiss at a school dance or smoking your first cigarette behind the dumpsters; this isn’t the 1950s. Teens are literally growing up online (and, arguably, have been for decades), often discovering communities, perspectives, art, you name it long before they might’ve come across the same things in the physical world. That means a teen like Casey is navigating a lot of heavy shit all while still forming her own opinions and identity. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair isn’t always groundbreaking, but it offers enough of a compelling narrative to make it intriguing, while quite possibly sparking more than a few conversations about just what our teenagers are doing online these days.
The film is now playing in theaters, including at Music Box Theatre, and arrives on VOD April 22.
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