For many, being a teenager in the ’90s and early 2000s meant unsupervised access to the internet – especially when no one was looking. Like HBO and Cinemax subscriptions before televisions had parental control features, the family PC opened up a world of unfiltered late-night entertainment and discovery.
Jane Schoenbrun’s first feature film, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” turns growing up in the early days of the internet into a modern horror story of adulthood. Schoenbrun draws inspiration from her own experiences as a transgender, non-binary teenager growing up in a suburb of New York City at a time when message boards are proliferating.
“From the advent of the first desktop computer in the basement in the mid-90s to this burgeoning relationship where everyone in the house went to sleep and I was crawling downstairs and spending money, the internet was a huge part of my life. I spent time on my favorite websites, Schoenbrun, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, told NBC News.
They recalled that “exploring many of the darker spaces the internet has to offer, other people like me coming together in that new, early time when the internet still felt disconnected from reality, like this other world.”
Casey, the movie’s protagonist, played by newcomer Anna Cobb, finds her own alternate reality in an online role-playing game that is said to have life-changing consequences. Some people report symptoms such as being unable to feel pain and turning to plastic, while others feel they have turned into some kind of monster—metaphors for the gender dysphoria that Schoenbrun realized was haunting in their adolescence.
“Growing up, what I knew was a constant sense of unreality, interrupted by a surrounding sense of shame, self-loathing, and anger,” Schoenbrun said in their director’s statement. “It took me decades to decipher these feelings and understand what they are – very common symptoms of dysphoria.”
At the heart of the movie, starting with what audiences understand as the World’s Fair Challenge, the game is inspired by the Reddit-sourced genre creepypasta, essentially a short horror story (think “Bloody”) that circulates around the internet via copy-and-paste. Mary” for the digital age).
In the opening scene, Casey repeats the first act of the challenge saying “I want to go to the World’s Fair” to the computer camera, then pierces his finger like some kind of blood victim. From there—through the director’s point of view, through first-person videos Casey shared online and those who seem to have found footage of other actors—the audience gets to know Casey’s online personality and isolated offline presence.
In his online videos, Casey looks like a savvy horror student, displaying takeovers reminiscent of ’80s movies like “Poltergeist.” How much control he has over these performances, however, is one of Schoenbrun’s many genre-bending turns.
Offline, her life has an air of unspoken tragedy. Casey’s father and rare environmental figure, only available as a shouting voice upstairs more ghosts than real people.
But later, JLB (Michael J. Rogers), a much older man who claims to be some kind of World’s Fair Challenge watchdog, approaches Casey online. At one point, the audience falls into JLB’s world as if being absorbed by the screen, where it’s impossible not to look for clues to his intentions with Casey.
However, as with Casey, it’s hard to parse exactly when JLB is on and offline – and that’s what Schoenbrun wants.
“The way Casey manifests for us—or for him, or for anonymous viewers of the internet—the film really deals with the way the film is self-actualizing for you while you watch it at home,” Schoenbrun said. And we need to ask ourselves questions about Casey’s intentions and maybe even my own.”
Schoenbrun explained that the film is not concerned with whether the characters are “good” or “bad” in the traditional sense, referring to this as “a non-binary way of thinking about the feelings and ideas in your film.”
“It’s about leaving people things to open for themselves later,” they said.
When watching “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”, there is often a feeling that Schoenbrun – like Casey – is playing with their audience. They use the traditions of horror and coming-of-age stories to invite the viewer to make assumptions that are never truly confirmed or reversed.
But it’s also an incredibly serious movie packed into an 86-minute runtime. The fragility of adolescence is evident, as is the director’s relationship with the protagonist.
“I think of it as a movie about a frustrated artist,” Schoenbrun said. “Casey is an artist and tries to discover things online through art in these kinds of spaces.”
According to Schoenbrun, message boards provided an early space to share their writing, long before it was “actually brought to life creatively.” This relationship with an online audience that provides welcome, sometimes dangerous arealargely shaped Casey’s character – and so did the director’s offline teen reality.
“Since then I’ve been writing a kind of emotional logic that feels really personal to me. Most of it was being smart, being angry, being creative, and being filled with self-loathing and shame. “What a nice little cocktail to drink in a suburban 14-year-old,” Schoenbrun said, almost laughing, adding that you can see these feelings reflected in Casey throughout the film.
As part of her research on puberty and coming of age, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” inevitably deals with teen suicide. There are hints from the beginning of the movie that Casey is struggling with suicidal ideation. (In the early scene where she’s at her most vulnerable, she controls a gun hidden in the house after she stops filming one of her videos because she thinks no one will care.) And the more she gets immersed in the water, the more she talks. it is in the game and shows its effects on it to whatever degree.
This is something Schoenbrun says they were extremely aware of while working on the film.
“It’s a very fundamental part of the unconscious experience of growing up as a queer person without the right support system, or of existing as an adult without the right support system as a queer person. How could he not let it go?” Referring to a famous line written by queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her article, Schoenbrun said:Queer and Now”: “I think everyone who does gay and lesbian studies has adolescent suicides on their minds.”
However, pondering this reality, which for many is an inevitable part of growing up as a queer person, did not come without difficulty.
“As an artist, you have a responsibility to ask yourself—especially if your work is going to instinctively speak to a vulnerable population—where is the line between work that communicates around real things and work that is so grim? can it hurt more than it helps?” “We’re establishing a lot of traditions in our media about what is and isn’t allowed so we don’t have to ponder over this question, and I’m currently reflecting on that question through my work.”
“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” hits theaters on Friday, April 22, and in select theaters across the country.