‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ Review: Is It Horror or Just Boredom?

In 1965, Susan Sontag observed that “We live under the continual threat of two equally frightening, but seemingly opposite fates: incessant banality and inconceivable terror. Still true, but with the added wrinkle that it can be hard these days to distinguish banality from terror.

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” Jane Schoenbrun’s first narrative feature, exploits the overlap between boredom and fear, and situates both in the everyday dystopian realm of the internet. Part of a solid genre of web-based horror, the film turns the familiar rituals and hacks of online life into a source of dread.

A bored teenager named Casey (Anna Cobb) seeks distraction in a spooky multiplayer game – a “creepypasta” – called World‘s Fair Challenge. After an initiation ritual that involves smearing blood on her laptop screen, she contributes videos to a growing body of lore claiming to document the sinister consequences of gambling. People claim to lose sensation in their bodies, transforming into inanimate objects, gradually and irreversibly losing their hold on reality.

How terrifying is that? It’s hard to say, because for many of us the slack, anxiety and dissociation of the World’s Fair Challenge is just another name for Tuesday.

Rather than jolt you with whimsical scares in the style of the “Paranormal Activity” movies (an explicit point of reference for Casey and his fellow fairies), Schoenbrum opts for calm and chilling effects, accompanied by a dark score of Alex G (for Giannascoli). It also resists the ostentatious gimmicks of found footage. While much of what’s on screen is video collected by Casey’s devices, there are also moments where the camera – cinematographer Daniel Patrick Carbone – explores moods and realities. offline.

Not that we learn much about Casey. She lives in a town that appears to be somewhere in the northeastern United States — uneven snow on the ground, rundown malls near the freeway, tree-covered hills in the distance — with her father, who is heard but not seen. He keeps an assault rifle in the barn, where there is also a video projector. Carey watches ASMR videos when she has trouble sleeping.

Most of what could be considered his real life – school, work, friends – is either non-existent or none of our business. Cobb, making his first appearance in film, has a knack for simultaneously soliciting and diverting curiosity into Casey’s inner life. Is she a troubled teenager putting her mental health and physical safety at risk, or a savvy role-player using her wide eyes and soft features to construct an avatar of vulnerability?

She is not quite alone. Some time after starting the challenge, she receives messages from a player named JLB (Michael J. Rogers), whose avi is an annoying hand-drawn figure with sunken eyes. The camera also follows him offline, to an almost empty modern mansion that seems miles away from Casey’s attic bedroom.

His presence in the film has the effect of composing both terror and banality, and creating a certain suspense about who will ultimately win out. In the tradition of internet science fiction, “World’s Fair” teases the boundary between the real and the virtual, but in a mood that’s quietly ruminative rather than wildly speculative. It’s not “The Matrix” or some sentient AI fantasy. It’s a slice of dull, everyday 21st century Americana and a daydream of something more intense.

We’re all going to the world’s fair
Unclassified. Duration: 1h26. In theaters.

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