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There is a strange, buried fear in giving thought to the amount of faces I’ve seen through screens over the years, and that amount has likely grown for a majority of the world over just the last two. For some, it may have been seen as an advantage to simply look into your phone or computer to feel less alone, and for others, it may never have been enough to feel like your relationships could survive through a digital barrier. But for the fewer who weren’t lucky enough to be in the company of others when the world locked down, an equally few number of choices were all to be had. And throughout the course of reopening and closing and rinse-repeat, the world’s semblance of progression now slowly surpasses your stagnancy. In spite of your various efforts to change and understand yourself more in this isolation, nothing can change how you were gradually made to feel as if the world was over, or at least altered to a point of no return, and now lies a stubborn sense of betrayal in feeling that it’s suddenly moving on without you. So, you stay put and wait until you come across someone who spent their time in isolation feeling something similar and then damn them when you realize you’re suddenly no longer alone in feeling something that you thought only you could feel. The loneliest that you can feel comes from knowing that you’re not.
When I watched Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair last year during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival (virtually), the takeaway that took me by surprise was realizing that the film was conceived and shot pre-COVID, having wrapped mere weeks before lockdown. Over the following fourteen months, rarely a day where it didn’t occupy at least part of my headspace, the film carried itself on a natural yet disconcerting air of prescience. From its very opening to its muted finale runs a still, overwhelming key of isolation and ambivalence, often played with sparkling strums of acoustic guitars and manipulated child-like vocals and seen through the lenses of camcorders and the beautiful grain of Photo Booth. But of course, it’s an air that exists in and out of its filmic framework. It exists in its unintended festival debut at homes, casted through televisions and computer screens instead of silver auditorium screens. It exists in virtual discussions of the film in various interviews and Q&As I’ve seen with writer-director Schoenbrun, who is non-binary and trans, through what seems to be their laptop camera. It exists in its form as a definitive COVID-era work, all without a hint of intention of being one.
I don’t remember when I comfortably began to identify as non-binary. Through my own personal time of living alone in the heat of a pre-vaccine era and having come to deeply quiet terms with this suddenly tangible neutrality I’ve subconsciously expressed through my entire life, everything felt far too scatterbrained to take any semblance of comfort or interest in anything besides rotting away on my sofa and putting on a movie once or nearly twice a day. My attention span too little for reading and too disillusioned for reality. What kept my eyes on World’s Fair prior to its premiere was admittedly the mere inclusion of an original score by Alex G – an artist whose own viral background allowed a deep fanbase to grow through not just his Bandcamp account but also the rabbit hole of unreleased music you can find on YouTube this very moment. Besides that, the film was nothing I could’ve had any preconceived notion of, which simply made its subsequent impact land harder. Its familiarity aches immediately upon the sight of the room belonging to Casey (stunningly acted by a debuting Anna Cobb) – personable yet muted, comfortable yet clearly alienated, blanketed in dim neon light. Her decision to take the World’s Fair challenge – a creepypasta-adjacent horror RPG that leaves its players with mysterious and often unsettling alterations – is unclear beyond the interest she’s had in making a reality of the horror movies she loves and compares her sleepwalking experiences to through online vlogs (“I swear, it was just like Paranormal Activity, I’m not even lying to you!”). Through the course of the film, we never concretely learn of any other reasoning, but rather we’re subject to Casey’s videos following the taking of the challenge, in which her behavior begins to intensify through unpredictable behavior, ideation of self-sabotage, and utterly destroying even the dearest connections to her. But eventually, it clicks upon a connection through the fairgrounds.
A man known only as JLB (played by Michael Rogers) extends himself as a co-player to Casey, in spite of the growing indifference she seems to have to his presence. Through spare exchanges over the stilted air that comes with any Skype call, Casey tells him of her experiences of feeling outside her own body, at once indicative of depersonalization but still a single element from her spectrum of ambiguity. A blurring line between mythologized and very real terror is slowly observed, but when a genuine danger is sensed and the time comes for him to break the constructed reality of the game, it is Cobb’s reaction that tells us everything. In the virtual realm of different communities making use of their creativity and connections to repress the loneliness that’s innate with plugging in, Casey has used the World’s Fair as an attempt to validate her identity and her indifference to the world and why it has seemingly rejected her. An almost desperate means to make sense of your own self and why you’re so young and even more so fucking angry that there’s no one around to help you; the only thing left to hold on to is the illusion of an unreal reality. And to have it suddenly, yet inadvertently, broken by someone else is to pretend that it hadn’t just sucked the last remaining parcel of life within you. So finally, you allow yourself to disappear. The only illusion left remaining is the connection that is evaporating into dead pixels. As if never formed to begin with. It’s gone by the time you reach your hand out.
My process in coming out should’ve been a blossoming. Something archived and under the support of those near to me. But instead, it was rendered under endless bouts of emotional disconnect and a suffocating dissociation of time and space that it always comes with. There’s an anger in not feeling able to move alongside the pace of what feels like everyone and everything outside of me. It comes and goes and often stays, leaving me with a consequent fear of letting empathy come from others. Each passing day is spent attempting to undo this reverting, but self-reliance feels more impossible with each day I forget to remind myself of who I am and how I’ve changed and that it’s important for me to exist. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is one of a very faint number of works that almost effortlessly understand this corresponding duality of emptiness and its repressed, yet overwhelming, sense of anguish. Many have already (and rightfully) drawn comparisons to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001) with its horror-leaning emphasis of loneliness within virtual space or to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) with its repressed urges of destruction within the emotionally-barren minds of American youth, but what came to mind upon my first viewing of the film was a documentary titled Gothic King Cobra (2014) – directed by a visual artist named ‘trapped’ and focusing on a YouTuber named Josh Saunders (KingCobraJFS), a young man with a deeply problematic history of abuse, as he discusses his alienation and apparent superiority complex to those within his surroundings of Casper, Wyoming. While his background may drastically differ from the fictional Casey’s, both share a deeply specific sensibility that comes with the spatial disillusionment of middle America. The barraging sameness of strip malls and the wide-open nothingness of fence-laden paths and train depots. You can almost sense the urge to simply plug in and hide away just from thinking of the isolation it’s capable of instilling within you. It doesn’t matter how and where you end up. As long as it’s elsewhere. It is this duality of pained realities and mythologized virtuality that we’ve conditioned ourselves to in a myriad of ways over the ages of online progression. But oftentimes, the illusion of ensured connection isn’t attainable, and your efforts to feel understood are made to be for naught by the infinite number of others who feel the same way as you. Anger returns, but you can’t prevent it from becoming a far less righteous kind than before. There’s no easy resolution to understanding yourself in these spaces, if you’re lucky to have one at all, and in just their first narrative feature, Schoenbrun manages to understand this better and more profoundly than any other current American filmmaker I know of.
It’s precisely why World’s Fair is far from concerned with any extensive background of its titular challenge or informed myth-making. Instead, the film is occupied directly with the atomic-like impact that the challenge has on virtual communities, presenting the ambiguity of its dream-like structure in full, unapologetic fluidity. This lack of clarity may come off as frustrating or perhaps even boring to viewers, but it is nothing less than wholly necessary in upholding its aching undercurrent of emotion. The online channel in which Casey posts her vlogs maintains a view count consisting of two-digit numbers. She mutters these numbers out to herself as she walks into a barn near her home at night and falls asleep to a large projected ASMR recording that is suddenly replaced by a video of her own distorted face. In the day, she records guttural screams in front of her webcam, and at night, she wakes up with a demonic grin under the overexposed light of her bedside lamp. What could be dictated as mere performance or genuine transformation is never directly drawn in the sand, and one of the smartest things about Schoenbrun’s film is that it is not supposed to matter. Cobb lends Casey a sensibility that is at once truthfully withdrawn and intensely unpredictable. She radiates angst at every turn, and it implodes once we realize her mysteries as only a series of grueling cries through a screen-shaped abyss. Cries not merely for help, but to be given a chance to exist without the pain of reality and with the boundlessness of unreality instead. What breaks the heart comes from knowing that once she is truly able to be given this by another, she has already eliminated her presence. All that the other can afford to do is envelop her in their own mythology. The same kind that keeps ghosts alive. The same kind that keeps the fairgrounds intact.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a work that doesn’t simply shroud itself in ambiguity for the sake of it. Rather, its mysteries present themselves with their own microcosms of density. The queerness of flourishing identity, the dysphoria and transhumanism of body horror, and the devastating fragility of connection, both in flesh and in pixels — all made to be especially apparent in a film that, above all, manages to extend itself so quietly and so distinctly, in spite of a truly unspeakable rage and darkness lurking beneath. But in the end, it manages to recognize when those waves recede and there is still only yourself. Often, it’ll be all that surrounds you, but all it’ll take to comfortably allow another in your vicinity is to allow yourself that extension first and to accept that there is no reason to keep yourself in the dark for fear that how you changed won’t be grasped enough to even matter. To reach your hand out to those who have already found themselves among others, enough to never have to go back to that darkness, is only another step to reminding myself of my desire and necessity to take up space. In the months I’ve spent thinking about this film, time and time again have I tried to process this recurring question in my head. To this day, it still asks — when the gates to the fair open, will you let yourself through?