The Internet Is Both a Safe Space and a Dark Place in “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”

For many, being a teenager in the 90s and early 2000s meant unmoderated access to the internet, especially when no one was watching. Like HBO and Cinemax subscriptions before televisions had parental control capabilities, the home computer opened up an unfiltered world of late-night entertainment and exploration.

Jane Schoenbrun’s feature debut ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ translates growing up in the early days of the internet into a modern coming-of-age story with horror undertones . Schoenbrun draws from his own experience as a transgender, non-binary teenager growing up in a New York suburb at a time when message boards proliferated.

“It was such a big part of my life, the internet, from the first desktop computer popping up in the basement in the mid-90s to this evolving relationship where everyone in the house went to sleep and I crawling downstairs and spending time on my favorite websites,” Schoenbrun, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, told NBC News.

They recalled “exploring a lot of darker spaces that the internet had to offer, where other people like me congregated in that nascent, early time, when the internet still felt like this other world, separate from the reality”.

The film’s protagonist, Casey, played by newcomer Anna Cobb, finds her own alternate reality in an online role-playing game, which would have life-changing consequences. Some people report symptoms like not feeling pain and turning into plastic, while others feel they are turning into some kind of monster – metaphors for the gender dysphoria that Schoenbrun realized it haunted their adolescence.

“What I knew growing up was a constant sense of unreality, a disconnect with an ambient sense of shame, self-loathing and anger,” Schoenbrun said in their director’s statement. “It took me decades to untangle these feelings and understand them for what they were – very common symptoms of dysphoria.”

The game at the center of the film, which begins with what audiences know as the World’s Fair Challenge, draws inspiration from the creepypasta genre that originated on Reddit, essentially a short horror story that circulates online via copy-and-paste (think “Bloody Mary” for the digital age).

In the opening scene, Casey performs the first act of the challenge, repeating “I want to go to the World’s Fair” into the computer camera, then pricking his finger, in a kind of blood sacrifice. From there — through the director’s lens, the first-person videos Casey shares online, and what appear to be found footage of other gamers — audiences get to know Casey’s online persona and his existence off. line isolated.

In her online videos, Casey appears to be a knowledgeable student of horror, performing acts of possession reminiscent of ’80s movies like “Poltergeist.” The degree of control she has over these performances, however, is one of Schoenbrun’s many genre twists.

Offline, an air of unspoken tragedy hangs over his life. Casey’s father, who is present only as a voice shouting upstairs, and the rare peripheral figure appear to be more ghosts than real people.

But then Casey is approached online by JLB (Michael J. Rogers), a much older man who claims to be some sort of watchdog for the World’s Fair Challenge. At one point, as if sucked through the screen, the audience is thrust into the world of JLB, where it’s impossible not to look for clues as to his intentions with Casey.

But, as with Casey, who exactly JLB is online and offline is hard to parse – and that’s exactly what Schoenbrun wants.

“The same way Casey happens to us – or to him or to anonymous internet audiences – the movie is really about how it happens to you at home watching it,” Schoenbrun said. “There’s a frustrating ambiguity in how we have to question his intentions, and we have to question Casey’s intentions and maybe even mine.”

Schoenbrun called it “a non-binary way of thinking about emotions and ideas in your film”, explaining that the film doesn’t care whether the characters are “good” or “evil” in the traditional sense.

“It’s about leaving things for people to unpack on their own afterwards,” they said.

Watching “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” often feels like Schoenbrun – like Casey – is playing with his audience. They use the conventions of horror and coming-of-age stories to invite the audience to make assumptions, which are never really confirmed or disproved.

But it’s also an incredibly serious film, packed into an 86-minute runtime. The vulnerability of adolescence is palpable, as is the director’s relationship with the main character.

“I consider it a film about a frustrated artist,” Schoenbrun said. “Casey is an artist and tries to explore something through art in these kinds of online spaces.”

Sundance Film Festival 2021 -
Director Jane Schoenbrun speaks at the virtual premiere of ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Sundance Film Festival via Getty Images

For Schoenbrun, message boards provided an early space to share their writings, long before they could “actualize creatively, in reality.” This relationship with an online audience, which provided a welcoming but sometimes dangerous spacelargely shaped the character of Casey – much like the offline director’s teenage reality.

“I was writing a kind of emotional logic that felt really personal to me from that point on. A big part of it was being smart, being angry, being creative, and being filled with self-loathing and shame. What a great little cocktail to have as a suburban 14-year-old,” Schoenbrun said, almost laughing, adding that you can see those feelings reflected in Casey throughout the film.

As part of its exploration of adolescence and the transition to adulthood, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” inevitably deals with teenage suicide. From the start of the film, there are hints that Casey is grappling with the idea of ​​suicide. (In an early scene that shows her most vulnerable, she checks a gun stored in the house after giving up on making one of her videos because she thinks no one will care.) And she does. speaks more and more as she immerses herself. in the game and dramatizes, to any degree, the effects it has on her.

It’s something Schoenbrun said they were hyper aware of when working on the film.

“It’s an essential part of the unconscious experience of growing up without the right support system as a queer person, or existing as an adult without the right support system as a queer person. How not to haunt the work? Schoenbrun said, alluding to a famous line penned by queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the essay “Queer and now“I think that anyone who studies gays and lesbians is haunted by teenage suicides.

But facing head-on this reality that is, for many, an inevitable part of growing up as a queer person has not been without its challenges.

“As an artist, you have a responsibility to ask yourself – especially when your work viscerally speaks to a vulnerable population – where the line lies between working together around real things and working too rough, or whatever. something that could do more harm than good?” they said. “We create a lot of conventions about what is and isn’t allowed in our media to avoid having to think deeply about this issue, and I think deeply to this issue right now, through my work.”

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” opens in select theaters Friday and nationwide on April 22.

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