This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Willow Maclay’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
In David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) Doctor Robert Vaughn (Elias Koteas, part Doctor Frankenstein, part his Monster) is obsessed with the philosophical transition of the human body with the machines we have built. He believes in the co-existence, and the reshaping of how we perceive our flesh as it has come to exist in a parallel place with steel and iron and oil. Cronenberg was a visionary, who was always searching for the newest evolution of the body. A few years later Cronenberg made a similarly philosophical picture by the name of eXistenZ (1999), which tried to understand how things like video games and the internet were beginning to become part of ourselves. It is through the trappings of a video game, whose far reach on the internet acts as a type of virus metaphor, that director Jane Schoenbrun brings us We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Schoenbrun is a disciple of Cronenbergian philosophy whose filmmaking takes the human body and collapses it inside new realities and possibilities for definition. In order to participate in the “World’s Fair”, one must prick their finger and wipe the blood on the screen of their computer. This is a sacrifice, an oath of the body; and one where the internet is no longer without a physical reality, but a living organ we have transplanted into our body. We now coexist within the unnatural, and have brought about a transformation of flesh and data and Schoenbrun’s filmmaking looks at this relatively recent phenomenon of total immersion with the internet with a sincerity of lived experience. The World’s Fair is home.
World’s Fair follows Casey (a debuting Anna Cobb) who is a teenage girl looking for something new and exciting to shake up her life and finds it in the myths and realities promised by the “World’s Fair”. She spends her evenings watching youtube videos where others have charted their symptoms after joining this online community. These videos range from a young woman’s skin becoming like plastic to a boy whose arms are being over-taken with a fungus. The language of the “World’s Fair” is built upon the backbone of body horror, which is also the closest thing we have to a cinematic language of gender dysphoria. In their filmmaking notes which were released ahead of the Sundance Film Festival, Schoenbrun states that World’s Fair is an attempt to “use the language of cinema to articulate the hard-to-describe feeling of dysphoria.” Schoenbrun elaborates further that their adolescence was a “constant feeling of unreality, one cut with an ambient sense of shame, self-loathing and anger.”. What Schoenbrun has accomplished with the form of World’s Fair is akin to catching a wisp of smoke, because the images, mood and aesthetic that they have brought to life is one that is understood completely by trans people as one of familiarity, without also plunging into the obvious melodrama, or liberal back-patting that is usually associated with “good” direct representation. Casey’s experience with the “World’s Fair” and the way she uses the internet is like a secret handshake of transness that is deliberately for us, because cisgender audiences do not understand the text of gender dysphoria when it is not also accompanied by bells and whistles. This is staggeringly unique in construction and exciting for what it may offer in telling stories of transness without the burden of medical queries getting in the way.
World’s Fair is also a horror movie and a love letter to an internet that isn’t aggregated to a handful of websites. Casey’s internet seems to exist under the shield of a perceived anonymity, and one where you can feel as if you are part of something, but still entirely alone. The internet as it is presented here is one of ambient, negative space, almost haunted in a Kiyoshi Kurosawa sort of interpretation, but also entirely modern, and accidentally prescient in the wake of COVID-19. Schoenbrun lingers on algorithmic loading screens for longer periods of time before someone or some thing is summoned for Casey during her lonely nights. Sometimes she is accompanied by something positive like an ASMR video telling her that nightmares aren’t real, but in other instances she may come across a video that acts as a direct warning that she is in trouble for reckoning with the horror of the “World’s Fair” and its curse of transformation. Is any of this real or is it a type of viral meme? It hardly matters for Casey, whose isolation and discomfort with her own existence has made her look for kinship in the waiting arms of the internet, and this community of people who may or may not be charlatans, and whose body morphing videos may or may not be fake. Schoenbrun makes the smart decision of waiting to reveal the secret of the “World’s Fair” until the very end so that it can take on a sincerity of belief that mirrors Casey’s own. She needs this even if it might be dangerous.
When Casey does begin to experience symptoms such as feeling outside of her own body, which is similar to disassociation and gender dysphoria, an older man by the name of JLB (Michael J. Rogers) introduces himself by making a video that warns Casey of what she has brought upon herself. The horror elements are most strongly present in the inherent potential danger of this relationship and in the worsening violent tone of Casey’s videos. JLB ultimately cares about Casey and the relationship they have in their shared interest in the “World’s Fair”, but it’s hard to parse that through Casey’s adolescent point of view. She distances herself just enough by never giving JLB her real name, but she’s also interested in the recklessness of continually skyping with an older man. For her, it’s all part of the experience, and it’s hard to say this isn’t the lived-in reality of being online under-supervised at a young age.
Many have compared the online myth-making of the “World’s Fair” to that of creepypasta, which is true, but the actual filmmaking is rooted in something far more primal and precise that feels adjacent to how Casey would actually decide to film herself. She mentions liking the Paranormal Activity movies and much of the longer-takes that Schoenbrun uses feel adjacent to found-footage horror filmmaking; a genre that owes a lot to the internet in its own right. My favourite of these involves Casey acting out a possession as she rips apart a childhood toy of hers. Lit with only the glow-in-the-dark adornments of her bedroom walls and ceiling and lamps the teenager bought herself, she stands in the middle of her bedroom, wearing corpse paint make-up and staring into the lens. This is an unconscious monument image in the vein of BOB from Twin Peaks and it is an unnerving one, because we have never once become detached from Casey’s own ambient experience of loneliness. Actor Anna Cobb is wonderful here, and throughout, because she can convey the dissonant tones of Schoenbrun’s haunted internet, but equally so when Casey herself is performing, she has a brash confidence and control of someone crafting her own story, which is just about the only thing this teenager has a firm grasp of in day to day life.
This is not a tragic story of the internet, or even how scary the internet can be, but something more nuanced. For younger millennial’s and gen-Z the internet isn’t a boogeyman, but as natural as the air one breathes. I did not grow up with a smart-phone or a strong internet connection, but the communities that I did make online changed my life in astronomical ways for the better. Schoenbrun’s film has sympathy for that connection and the distance that can feel so very large when that symbiosis is severed. Casey needed the “World’s Fair” to survive, and for today’s generation of young adults we’ve all had an experience with a smaller, more personal internet, whose nooks and crannies allowed for niche communities to thrive and prop one another up. When I was fifteen years old I had an account at a transgender safe haven called “Susan’s Place”, where I could be out and have control of my life in this one very real instance. There were adults there who helped me get black-market hormones, even though I was only a teenager, and they assured me it was safe even though I had no real idea what I was putting into my body. They worked. I developed in ways I wanted to, but then I got scared I wouldn’t be able to hide my changes and I left Susan’s and got rid of the hormones, even though they were helping me. Being on that website at that time and being with those people helped save my life in some way, and even if my relationship with that website was naive and potentially too-trusting it’s part of my history. Just as the “World’s Fair” is part of Casey’s and a million other stories of relationships formed on the internet will be for others.
The internet is part of us.
Prick your finger. Wipe the blood on the screen.
We already have.