In Jane Schoenbrun’s first feature, a teenager finds terror and distraction in a multiplayer online game.
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Way back in 1965, Susan Sontag observed that “we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” Still true, but with the added wrinkle that nowadays it can be hard to distinguish banality from terror.
“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” the debut narrative feature from Jane Schoenbrun, exploits the overlap between tedium and fright, and locates both in the everyday dystopian realm of the internet. Part of a sturdy genre of web-based horror, the movie turns the familiar rituals and hacks of online life into a source of dread.
A bored teenager named Casey (Anna Cobb) seeks diversion in a scary multiplayer game — a “creepypasta” — called the World’s Fair Challenge. After an initiation ritual that involves daubing blood on the screen of her laptop, she contributes videos to a growing body of lore purporting to document the game’s sinister consequences. People claim to lose feeling in their bodies, to find themselves turning into inanimate objects, to gradually and irreversibly lose their grip on reality.
How terrifying is that? It’s hard to say, since for many of us the slackness, anxiety and dissociation of the World’s Fair Challenge is just another name for Tuesday.
Rather than jolt you with gimmicky scares in the manner of the “Paranormal Activity” movies (an explicit point of reference for Casey and her fellow fairgoers), Schoenbrun goes for quiet, spooky effects, accompanied by a glum score by Alex G (for Giannascoli). The film also resists ostentatious found-footage gimmickry. While a lot of what’s onscreen is video collected by Casey’s devices, there are also moments when the camera — the cinematographer is Daniel Patrick Carbone — explores off-line moods and realities.
Not that we learn much about Casey. She lives in a town that looks like it might be somewhere in the Northeastern U.S. — patchy snow on the ground, battered strip malls off the highway, 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. Casey watches ASMR videos when she has trouble sleeping.
Most of what might count as her real life — school, work, friends — is either nonexistent or none of our business. Cobb, making her first appearance in a film, has a knack for simultaneously soliciting and deflecting curiosity about Casey’s inner life. Is she a troubled adolescent putting her mental health and physical safety at risk, or a canny role-player using her wide eyes and soft features to construct an avatar of vulnerability?
She isn’t entirely alone. Sometime after starting in on the Challenge, she receives messages from a player named JLB (Michael J. Rogers), whose avi is an unnerving hand-drawn figure with sunken eyes. The camera follows him offline too, into a mostly empty modern mansion that seems worlds away from Casey’s attic bedroom.
His presence in the movie has the effect of dialing up both the terror and the banality, and creating a certain amount of suspense about which will win out in the end. In the tradition of internet science fiction, “World’s Fair” teases the boundary between the actual and the virtual, though in a frame of mind that is quietly ruminative rather than wildly speculative. This isn’t “The Matrix” or a fantasy of sentient A.I. It’s a slice of drab, everyday 21st-century Americana and a daydream of something more intense.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes. In theaters.