A young teenage girl, Casey (Anna Cobb), living an isolated, troubled life in the real world seeks community and adventure in the titular online role-playing game in writer-director Jane Schoenbrun’s intriguing narrative feature debut. Ostensibly a horror movie in which a naïve kid immerses herself in a world that promises transformation, the real horror isn’t in the game but in the world Casey encounters whenever she leaves the safety of her bedroom.
In a way, the movie plays like a cousin to Bo Burnham’s 2018 coming-of-age drama Eighth Grade. As in that the movie, the heroine uses the internet as means of affirmation, as a way of presenting a persona to the outside world, and simply as a way to be seen. But in Burnham’s movie, his protagonist was simply an awkward kid going through the humiliating throes of adolescence but hers is a middle-class life in a home she shares with her loving father.
Casey knows no such security. We never see her father, and only occasionally hear him padding about, but through those sounds and her online conversation, the suggestion is he is abusive. At one point, she visits the shed where he keeps his hunting rifle and removes it from his case, and the question lingers: Will her dad use the gun on Casey, Casey on her dad, Casey on herself, or is it all just misdirection? Similarly, are we meant to take transformations happening to other players in the game and that Casey claims are happening to herself seriously, or are witnessing girl’s vivid imagination?
Certainly JLB (Michael J. Rogers) doesn’t know what to think. Old enough to be Casey’s father, he is a gamer hooked on her vlog entries. He reaches out to her, ostensibly wanting to protect her, but does he really? Just what are the intentions of an old guy on the internet who contacts someone he knows to be very young? Does he really have her best interests at heart or is he just a pedophile looking to groom a potential victim?
Cobb, in her first screen role, is reminiscent of Elliott Page at the outset of their career. The character may be immature; the talent isn’t. She nails Casey’s unhappiness and bravado, as well as unpredictability. In a way the World’s Fair game seems tailormade for her, no matter what horrifying things may happen in it. It is still an escape from the dread that seem to lurk just outside her bedroom door. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a horror movie alright, but one that keeps you guessing where the real terror lies.