We're All Going to the World's Fair [Sundance Film Festival Review]

We're All Going to the World's Fair screened in the Next section of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, a subset of “bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling.” That placement is appropriate. It sounds like a horror movie, and it is – it just isn't a horror movie that plays like mainstream studio fare, nor does it play like many of the boundary-pushing indies we've seen in the last ten years. In fact, the scary elements are almost subliminal. Writer/director Jane Schoenbrun gives you just enough information to put the pieces together in your mind.

The movie centers around “creepypasta,” that phenomenon of horror myths passed around and expanded upon on the internet. Casey (Anna Cobb) is a teenage girl who decides to take part in “the World's Fair Challenge.” We're never told exactly what it is, other than it's some form of online role-playing horror game. Taking the challenge involves watching a video, pricking her finger for blood, and then posting a reaction.

What's supposed to happen? Casey doesn't know, although she's seen videos of other people who have taken the challenge. They report things like losing all feeling in their bodies or turning into plastic. Schoenbrun shows these videos in full, generating in us the exact same anxiety her main character experiences. Then Casey is contacted by a stranger, JLB (Michael J. Rogers), who's watching the follow-up videos she posts. He claims to see worrying signs in them.

There are no jump scares in We're All Going to the World's Fair, no moments that will make you scream. The two-character film is instead deeply psychological. Almost the entire back half is Casey's videos, which do seem to become more disturbing over time. We don't know if she's pretending, if something has taken over her, or if it's a case where she's behaving oddly because she's convinced herself the challenge is going to impact her. Also unnerving is JLB, who talks to her via Skype. He's considerably older, and could therefore be a predator. If he's not, then he's a guy who has bought into an internet game he should be smart enough not to get sucked in by. That means he could be having a negative influence on Casey.

The movie's pace is intentionally slow, allowing us to absorb the little details that will eventually get under our skin. What makes it work is the performance from Anna Cobb. Making her feature debut, the actress is thoroughly real in the role. She never hits a false note, never seems anything less than 100% credible. Her natural quality onscreen makes We're All Going to the World's Fair feel almost like you've tuned into some teen's vlog. Rogers gets less screen time, yet also never seems like he's acting.

Such verisimilitude gives the film's themes of loneliness, isolation, depression, and the influence of creepypasta a stronger punch than you initially expect. We're All Going to the World's Fair is an exercise in moodiness and atmosphere that cast a spell over me.

out of four

We're All Going to the World's Fair is unrated, but contains adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.