Casey (Anna Cobb) is a lonely thirteen-year-old girl who lives with her uninterested, single father in an isolated farmhouse out in the countryside. She doesn't really have any friends, so to fill that gap in her life she has built up an imaginary relationship with the internet, where she can post videos that hardly anyone watches but feels nevertheless that she is connecting to the wider world. Just recently she has been reading up about an online game called We're All Going to the World's Fair, loosely based around the celebration of a few decades ago but in this incarnation not bothered about being educational, more scaring the participants. Casey decides to take part, and begins the relevant rituals...
This was a film that presumably were it watched over the internet would have viewers turning off in droves, yet if you persevered with its anxious tedium you might find something that cast a spell. Its creator was Jane Schoenbrun, with her first credit since coming out publicly as trans and changing her name, and it certainly won some intrigued coverage across the internet press. It also came as a surprise to some that she had not intended the film as a condemnation of online abuses, but as an examination of what it was like to grow up trans and not feeling as if your body is entirely in tandem with your mind. In truth, you could easily watch this and be oblivious to the director's intentions and simply regard it as yet another horror warning of the dangers to be found online.
But this was not Unfriended or Host, for a start there were cutaways to Casey's activities away from the screen to fill in more of the plot that served to highlight precisely how alone she was: we never see her interact with anyone at all, not even her father who is heard once, yelling at her to go to bed at three o'clock in the morning. Once she has been initiated, in a ceremony that may not have any sinister power at all other than what she and other users bring to it, we begin to fear for her sanity as she wills herself to be altered in some way psychologically, convinced this World's Fair game will be the trigger for life changing experience. Well, it's not even a game in truth, it appears to be the work of sophisticated online trolls who merely wish to mess with the heads of the young and vulnerable, which brings us to JLG (Michael J. Rogers).
He is neither young nor vulnerable and sends Casey a creepy video to get her attention informing her she is in trouble for using the game. At first we think his motives must be highly questionable at best - why would a middle-aged man try to strike up a friendship with a young adolescent girl? - but after a while he demonstrates real concern, and we realise he is as isolated as she is, though Casey, with the possibilities of her life ahead of her, has a better chance of breaking that cycle than he does. Her videos grow increasingly erratic, but crucially, apart from a sequence where she destroys a beloved soft toy, the overall atmosphere was so muted that you would be surprised to actually feel any sensations of fear. Worry over the girl's deteriorating mental health, maybe, though even then it may be more robust than she lets on and she could be acting up for the cameras, yet the problem was the drama less built to a thundering crescendo and more dwindled into a fizzle. That was by design, to all intents and purposes, but it sure was a perverse way to leave the audience hanging after anticipating a bombshell, figuratively speaking. Music by Alex G.
[We're All Going To The World's Fair arrives in UK cinemas from April 29, and on Digital Download and Blu-ray from May 9 2022.]