For many, being a teenager in the 1990s and early 2000s meant unmoderated access to the Internet — especially when no one was watching. Like subscriptions to HBO and Cinemax before televisions had parental controls, the family computer opened up an unfiltered world of late-night entertainment and exploration.
Jane Schoenbrun’s feature film debut, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” translates growing up in the days of the early internet into a modern coming-of-age story with horror undertones. Schoenbrun takes inspiration from their own experience as a transgender, non-binary teen growing up in suburban New York City at a time when message boards were proliferating.
“It was such a big part of my life, the Internet, from when the first desktop computer appeared in the basement in the mid-’90s to this evolving relationship of everyone else in the house going to sleep and I crawled down and spending time on my favorite websites,” Schoenbrun, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, told NBC News.
They recalled exploring “many of the dark spaces that the Internet had to offer, where other people like me gathered in those burgeoning, early days, when the Internet still felt like this other world, separated from reality.”
The film’s protagonist, Casey, played by newcomer Anna Cobb, finds her own alternate reality in an online role-playing game, which is said to have life-changing consequences. Some people report symptoms such as not being able to feel pain and turning into plastic, while others feel like they are turning into some sort of monster — metaphors for the gender dysphoria that Schoenbrun began to realize haunted their adolescence.
“What I did know growing up was a constant sense of unreality, a sense of shame, self-loathing and anger,” Schoenbrun said in their director’s statement. “It took me decades to unravel these feelings and understand them for what they were — common symptoms of dysphoria.”
The game in the middle of the film, which begins with what audiences come to know as the World’s Fair Challenge, is inspired by the Reddit-originated genre creepypasta, essentially a short horror story circulating online via copy and paste (think “Bloody Mary” for the digital age).
In the opening scene, Casey performs the first act of the challenge, repeating “I want to go to the World’s Fair” into the computer camera and then jabbing her finger, as a sort of blood sacrifice. From there — through the director’s lens, first-person videos Casey shares online, and what appears to be found footage from other players — audiences are introduced to Casey’s online persona and isolated offline existence.
In her online videos, Casey appears to be a knowledgeable student of horror, performing acts of possession reminiscent of 80s movies like “Poltergeist.” However, how much control she has over these performances is one of Schoenbrun’s many genre-bending twists.
Offline, an air of unspoken tragedy pervades her life. Casey’s father, who is only present as a voice screaming above, and appears to be the rare peripheral figure… more ghosts than real people.
But then Casey is approached online by JLB (Michael J. Rogers), a much older man who claims to be some sort of World’s Fair Challenge watchdog. At one point, as if being sucked through the screen, the audience is dropped into JLB’s world, where it’s impossible not to look for clues as to his intentions with Casey.
But, as with Casey, it’s hard to parse exactly who JLB is online and offline – which is exactly how Schoenbrun wants it.
“In the same way that Casey performs itself for us — or for him or for the anonymous audience of the Internet — the film is really interested in the way it performs itself for you at home as you watch it,” Schoenbrun said. “There’s a frustrating ambiguity in the way we have to question ourselves about his intentions, and we have to question ourselves about Casey’s intentions and maybe even my own.”
Schoenbrun called this a “non-binary way of thinking about the emotions and ideas in your film”, explaining that the film doesn’t deal with whether characters are “good” or “bad” in the traditional sense.
“It’s about leaving people with stuff that they can then unpack themselves,” they said.
When you watch “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”, you often have the feeling that Schoenbrun – like Casey – is playing with their audience. They use the conventions of horror and coming-of-age stories to invite the public to make assumptions, which are never really confirmed or overturned.
But it’s also an incredibly serious film, packed into a running time of 86 minutes. The fragility of adolescence is palpable, as is the director’s relationship with the protagonist.
“I see it as a film about a frustrated artist,” Schoenbrun said. “Casey is an artist and is trying to explore something online through art in these kinds of spaces.”
For Schoenbrun, bulletin boards provided an early space to share their writing, long before they could be realized “creatively, in reality.” That relationship with an online audience, that a welcoming but sometimes dangerous spacelargely shaped Casey’s character—and so did the director’s adolescent reality offline.
“I wrote some kind of emotional logic that felt very personal to me from then on. A lot of it was being smart, being angry, being creative and being filled with self-loathing and shame. What a nice cocktail to drink in the suburbs as a 14-year-old Schoenbrun said, almost laughing, adding that you can see those feelings in Casey throughout the film.
As part of the investigation of adolescence and coming-of-age, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” inevitably centers on teenage suicide. From the beginning of the film, there are indications that Casey is struggling with the idea of suicide. (In an early scene that shows her at her most vulnerable, she checks out a gun stored in the house after giving up making one of her videos because she thinks no one cares.) And she keeps talking about it. more about it as she becomes more immersed in the game and, to whatever degree, acts out the effects it has on her.
It’s a subject that Schoenbrun said they were hyper-aware of while working on the film.
“It’s such an essential part of the subconscious experience of growing up without the right support system as a queer person, or existing as an adult without the right support system as a queer person. How can it not haunt the work?” Schoenbrun said, referring to a famous line written by the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the essay “Queer and now”: “I think anyone doing gay and lesbian studies is haunted by the suicides of adolescents.”
But addressing this reality, which for many is an inevitable part of growing up as a queer, has not been without its difficulties.
“As an artist, you have a responsibility to ask yourself – especially when your work is going to appeal to a deeply rooted population – where is the line between the work as communicating around real things and the work as being too cheeky, or something that can hurt more than that it helps?” they said, “We create a lot of conventions about what is and isn’t allowed in our media to avoid having to think deeply about that question, and I’m thinking deeply about that question right now, through my work.”
“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” opens Friday and April 22 in select theaters.