Sundance Review: We're All Going to the World's Fair
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is bookended by two medium close-ups of its star, debut performer Anna Cobb, staring back at the camera in a sluggish mirage of blinking lights. They’re fitting images; as an emotionally adrift teen exploring the dark corners of the world wide web, Cobb’s face carries the burden of the film’s momentum. A lot happens to Casey, her character. A lot less happens in the movie. But despite a few ill-fitting tangents and a series of question marks left floating by the end, Jane Schoenbrun’s unapologetically dark and ambiguous study of identity in the digital age makes for a compelling combination of mood filmmaking and footage manipulation.
The premise of the film is simple - as is its opening sequence. A teenage girl takes an online challenge: the World’s Fair. Watch a video. Prick your thumb. Observe the psychological and physical effects in the coming days and weeks. It’s an internet-based riff on genre classics like Candyman, but don’t let the simplicity fool you. Schoenbrun builds an eerie, engaging first ten minutes, deftly side-stepping potential cliches and immediately enveloping us in her film’s broody embrace.
Much of that success is down to Cobb. Except for a few well-placed and scintillating outbursts, the first-timer mutes her emotions enough to match the film’s energy, yet lets just enough poke through to give us a sense of the confusion and distress that she endures. She somehow presents a steely but vulnerable countenance, a sheen of confidence covering a clear maelstrom inside. As she encounters or imagines (or both) growing changes in the wake of the game, and as a strange online relationship deepens, both the film and Casey spiral outwards - though Cobb always seems to maintain control over her performance.
Composer Alex G wraps the visuals in a subdued but swirling score. Daniel Patrick Carbone’s photography weaponizes light and color in service of the alternating obfuscation and exploration in Schenbrun’s script. Though it can be impenetrable at times, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a promising entry from the multi-hyphenate filmmaker, and at the very least, should provoke conversation in the wake of its premiere - all too appropriately, of course, those conversations will be almost entirely online.