dir: June Schoenbrun
We’re not all really going to the World’s Fair. Only the select few.
The rest of us will be left behind, in our miserable isolation, desperately wanting to connect with someone whilst avoiding all meaningful human contact.
Describing this film will be somewhat difficult, at least for me. I am, as many people are happy to point out, quite old. Despite the fact that I try to have an understanding of contemporary stuff in the zeitgeist, there’s so much of it, and some of it is so ineffable, that it’s sometimes hard to grasp whatever the hell the latest thing the young ‘uns are obsessed with is.
I think this flick is about a subset of a subset of internet users who suck themselves into believing conspiracies that are patently untrue, But believing that stuff, no matter how outlandish, is the only way for them to wrest meaning from the chaos that is their existence.
There are pretty much only two characters / actors in this flick. We watch Casey (Anna Cobb) record videos of herself all throughout the movie. I’m no therapist, but I think it’s safe to say she’s an isolated, disconnected teenager, possibly grieving the death or departure of her mother. We never see her father, but we do see her bolt upstairs to her attic bedroom when he arrives home, or yelling at her from downstairs when she’s watching creepypasta horror videos at 3 in the morning at full volume.
I don’t think we see her go to school, or have a single scene with other humans in it. Her one interaction with another person is a skype call with some jerk who’s obsessed with her.
Before those warning bells start ringing, I don’t think this is a flick about the perils of predators on the internet, and what hazards kids face when their loneliness compels them to open up to strangers. It’s not a cautionary tale in the sense that “this could be your kid right now!!!” being sold into slavery or pursued by rapacious Republican politicians.
It’s more nuanced, in the sense that it’s about quite a depressed teen, who may be acting out, who may be disassociating, but who struggles for meaning, for a reason to go on.
And what does that look like in this present age? It’s a kid posting videos of themselves to an audience of nobodies in order to get a handful of likes or views. We’re not even talking about the people who go to insane lengths for subscribers and the like: they’re performing for fewer people than you’d see at an average bus stop.
So we wonder, how much of this is Casey losing the plot mentally, and how much of it is her choosing to buy into this elaborate (and yet absurdly simplistic) “game” called the World’s Fair, where people pretty much recite an incantation, smear blood on their screen, watch a strobing video, and then watch as parts of their bodies or brains start transforming in some way?
I mean, I know it’s bullshit, and it’s meant to be bullshit (I think) even within the movie, but for most of the flick’s length, to me it seemed like Casey thinks / hopes it’s real. As disturbing as it is to see her do more outlandish things on camera, I was never sure whether it was “real” disassociation, or whether it was performative, affected stuff like what millions of people put out there in the hopes that it will somehow bring them fame or infamy.
It doesn’t feel like Casey is doing it solely for the likes or views. She seems disturbed enough for it to feel like her maybe actually losing her mind, and not realising what she’s doing, what’s going on around her.
Whatever her motivations, whatever is actually going on with her is entirely separate from whatever is motivating some middle-aged guy who decides he’s worried about Casey and that he’s here to protect her, perhaps even from herself. We see this strange guy who lives in a massive, absolutely massive house, who seems to live alone, but spends all day either watching Casey’s videos, or recording videos of himself fretting about Casey. He seems obsessed with her, and keeps telling her she’s going off the deep end and maybe needs psychiatric help, but that she also should totally keep making videos, so that he can monitor her progress.
It’s… a lot. This is not a story where these lost souls develop a friendship and grow together, or learn to overcome things, or anything remotely like that. They interact a few times over skype, and each time it’s awkward and deeply off-putting, plus JLB (Michael J. Rogers) is always heavy breathing. He also refuses to show Casey what he looks like, instead preferring to display a creepy drawing, even as he paternalistically tells her what to do, and that he thought about calling the cops a few times.
My favourite scene in the movie (though not the ‘best’, or most confronting scene), is one where Casey, irritated by JLB’s whole deal, does a tarot card reading, basically getting the cards to say what a loser JLB must be, based solely on the cards themselves.
You can’t argue with the cards – they said you’re a loser, dude. Deal with it.
Part of you, especially if you’re a parent, especially if you’re the parent of a teenager who seems to be spending 90 per cent of their lives online these days, might watch the stuff Casey gets into, or does on camera, and feel worried, concerned or disturbed. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable reaction. But I don’t think the flick’s aim is solely to say “you should be worried about what your kids are doing online”. We should be just as concerned, or worried about the middle-aged guy trying to manipulate a child from afar, even if it has nothing to do with the things that we fear most.
You could also be watching this, tearing your hair out at scenes where a kid says to camera “I’m going to record myself sleeping, now, to see if anything changes”, and then angle a bright light onto themselves before lying down, wanting to scream “How are you meant to get a decent night’s sleep with all the lights and cameras on! Turn it all off and go to bed you little monster!!!!”
Or maybe you’re capable of more restraint than I am.
If there’s an overall point, and I’m not sure there is, because that would be too neat and convenient for a flick as expansive yet low-key as this, one which raises dozens of points but answers and addresses none of them, it’s that while the internet has facilitated the coming together of countless people with shared interests and passions, or support etc, it’s not always a healthy substitute for meaningful relationships. The internet has increased the scale and magnitude of what are now called parasocial relationships, where because we can receive messages or posts from famous people, or anyone, for that matter, that we’re somehow connected to them, and have the right to tell them what to do or what not to do. There is a danger when we derive so much meaning from something that doesn’t meaningfully exist.
JLB is as wrong in his compulsion towards Casey as Casey is in portraying herself as a person way more disturbed that she might be. Maybe “wrong” is the wrong word to use there. Maybe it’s just unhealthy.
At the very least this very slow, achingly slow movie feels like it’s a pretty disturbing snapshot into an element of how people relate to the internet contemporarily, and how it’s not particularly great. And yet I hoped that Casey would be okay, and perhaps find the help / support offline that she desperately seemed to need. But I would also hope JLB could get the help he needs, and perhaps cut off his internet access, or at the very least stop trying to befriend teenagers.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair feels like one of those niche kinds of films that describes a fairly obscure thing perfectly, but that will be swamped by the new tsunami of awfulness that the online world seems to produce every week, but that shouldn’t detract from what the director or the main actor achieve here. Anna Cobb, in her first acting role, is never less than convincing, and in the scenes where she seems to be disassociating, she is fucking terrifying. She is an amazing talent.
And the director, June Schoenbrun takes a lot of risks in this movie. There are a lot of long, long scenes, and most directors / editors would have been champing at the bit to edit and edit again. But the length of many of the scenes (absurdly lengthy, in some instances), actually enhances the feeling that you’re watching something ‘real’, which is a conceptual minefield in and of itself, and that Casey’s life really is this flat and depressing.
It does make you worry about what the online world is doing to their brains, though. Anyway, it’s impressive and disturbing, and a bit deflating, but in that it’s just like real life.
8 all the lonely people, where do they all belong out of 10
“Hey guys. Casey here. Welcome to my channel. Today I’m going to be taking the World’s Fair challenge.” – don’t do it - We’re All Going to the World’s Fair