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We're All Going to the World's Fair
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by Jay Seaver

"An okay proof-of-concept for the movie that eventually does it right."
2 stars

SCREENED VIA INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2021: There's a great movie to be made about the ground that this one covers, but I'm pretty sure that "We're All Going to the World's Fair" isn't it. It may be closer than I thought - for as much as I've dabbled in the sort of social-media storytelling that filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun is playing with, I've never been that engrossed. It's a younger person's game, after all. Still, I found myself remembering the feeling of watching "The Collingswood Story" back in 2005 - a prototype for the later "screen life" movies that hadn't quite figured out how to make it work yet - and wondering what the next movie that plays with this hook would do.

It starts out in internet urban legend territory, with teenager Casey (Anna Cobb) taking the "World's Fair Challenge" - saying "I want to go to the World's Fair" three times, offering up a bit of blood, and playing a video with a lot of strobing lights. Others who have taken it have disconnected from reality in some ways - feeling no pain, skin taking on a plasticine consistency, and the like - and Casey promises updates to her followers. One of them, JLB (Michael J Rogers) is older and seems not so much worried about kids playing with the supernatural, but plunging themselves so deeply into viral role-play scenarios that they can't get out.

That's a topic that merits a lot more examination in popular culture than it's getting, and not just in genre cinema - though for all JLB talks about teens, they're not the ones being taken in by QAnon. Even if the movie winds up in "they think it's a game but it's real" territory, that's still a neat hook, but the trouble here is, Schoenbrun doesn't do a whole lot to establish the idea. The "World's Fair" lore presented in the movie isn't built up to the level where it's interesting on its own, especially since the film spends so much of its time with Casey and JLB that there's not much context for what Casey's getting herself into if it's real. Schoenbrun never gives the audience enough that a sudden twist could have an effect, and Casey is an isolated-enough character whose biggest trait is that she likes horror stuff, so the slow burn itself doesn't have that much effect.

That's probably realistic, but there are times when realism isn't necessarily an asset. Anna Cobb and Michael J Rogers are both thoroughly believable in their respective roles, but the characters are enigmas out of necessity - Schoenbrun sometimes seems to be saving any juicy details for a twist that sort of fizzles when it comes - and neither their body language nor the various details add up into much. They seem fairly average, and this sort of horror movie or thriller needs something a bit more out of the ordinary. Everything gets played so straight that the big scene where the audience is supposed to gasp at something impossible in thoroughly grounded footage never actually feels uncanny.

Schoenfeld seems primed to offer something unique at the start, as the film opens with an extended shot from the POV of Casey's webcam, a nifty inversion of those screen life movies that maybe emphasizes things moving from on-line to the real world in a way that the live feeds don't. She seldom does much to follow up on the hints she drops, which is unfortunate, because they individually feel like they could lead to something. The finale gets at something about how teens and adults approach this sort of content on the internet - and each other - that works as a satisfying conclusion but is also frustrating, because she's got something to say here but has spent so much of the film playing coy and half-heartedly feinting toward a more conventional horror movie that it's frustrating that she doesn't just dive right into this stuff earlier.

At least, that's how it hit my middle-aged eyes; it's entirely possible that a teenager more immersed in this stuff is going to see it more clearly. Even if they do, I still wonder whether there's enough meat on the movie's bones to actually pull a viewer in and actually make them scared of anything going on.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=34048&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/11/21 10:52:32
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Directed by
  Jane Schoenbrun

Written by
  Jane Schoenbrun

Cast
  Anna Cobb
  Michael J Rogers



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