The critically-acclaimed new horror contemplating gender dysphoria
Like 'The Matrix' before it, a queer allegory sits at the heart of 'We're All Going to the World's Fair'.
The gulf between digital and physical identity is something that TV and film keeps returning to. From reality TV shows like The Circle to The Matrix Resurrections, there's something about cyberspace that's endlessly compelling. We're All Going to the World's Fair, the directorial debut of Jane Schoenbrun, is an experimental horror film that takes our continued curiosity about the internet in directions that are at once strange, unsettling, and deeply queer; creating a portrait of what it means to be Very Online that intersects with the uncertainties of understanding trans identity.
At the centre of World's Fair is teenager Casey (Anna Cobb, also making her feature debut), someone who is clearly lonely -- there's only one scene in the film where she's seen among other people, walking through a crowd on New Year's Eve -- but finds solace in the World's Fair Challenge. The Challenge is a kind of creepypasta, in which the participants repeat a cryptic phrase ("I want to go to the world's fair") before drawing a little blood, as if they're making an oath. The thing with the World's Fair Challenge -- described as "the internet's scariest horror game" -- is that people who play it say their bodies change. As she dives deeper into the Challenge, Casey sees videos of people who report all manner of symptoms; from not being able to feel pain to turning into plastic or being unable to shake the feeling that a game of Tetris is happening inside of their body. The most explicit moment of body horror in World's Fair involves Casey watching a video of another participant, who proceeds to pull out a string of yellow ADMIT ONE fairground tickets from a wound in their arm.
It's these changes, or the possibility of them, that give World's Fair its queer resonance, turning the liminal space that Casey occupies -- so much of the film takes place in that uncertain time between late night and early morning -- into something uniquely queer. As she dives deeper into what may or may not be a game, Casey makes a connection with another play, JLB (Michael J Rogers). He's much older than her and is steeped in the lore of the Challenge; his house is full of drawings of an uncanny, not-quite-human figure. The question lingers throughout the film as to whether or not this is how JLB perceives himself. One of the great triumphs of World's Fair is its refusal to acknowledge what's real and what isn't, creating a space that's deeply subjective, about identities that are still forming and never fixed.
It's in the early conversations that Casey has with JLB about the impact of the challenges that the trans subtext of World's Fair emerges. After watching videos of how other people have responded to the Challenge, Casey confesses that "for most people, I know it's a really big change. That's not what it feels like for me." This moment goes to the very heart of what World's Fair is about: the intersection between digital spaces and queerness, and what it means to not feel at home in your own body. Casey acknowledging that her own experience isn't the same as the ones she's seen -- that any changes don't feel as seismic as they should -- has a deeply queer resonance. That bittersweet feeling of having to accept that the way you change and come to terms with your new identity, through bodily changes or other means, won't be the same as those around you. Instead of a huge transformation -- plastic, numbness or Tetris -- she says, "it's like I can feel myself leaving my body. Like it's making me someone else."
This obsession with subjectivity, both in terms of the impact that the Challenge has on Casey, and Jane Schoenbrun's own refusal to present anything as quote-unquote real, is what makes the film so queer. It refuses to offer a single narrative -- of queerness, transitioning, coming out -- but these themes are always rumbling beneath the surface, as Casey reckons with the change that may or may not be taking place inside her body, using the Challenge, and the internet, as a space through which she can try and come to terms with whoever it is she's becoming.
Digital spaces have long been contemplated as vessels for queer people to explore identity, with the Wachowski's Matrix series being the most famous example. The original Matrix even gets a small shout-out in World's Fair: JLB's desktop, which seems like the tangled web of a conspiracy theorist, features The Matrix as something to rewatch -- with cyberspace existing as an arena divorced from the physical body, one where you can try to create, or understand, an identity beyond the body you're trapped in.
This gulf is vital to World's Fair, and to its queerness. Not only does the Challenge offer its participants a way to talk about their bodies transforming, but it reinforces the idea of not feeling at home in your own body. Casey before the Challenge, and Casey as she goes through it, becomes a kind of case study for dysphoria, and throwaway lines like "I can't tell my father about this, he'll think I'm fucking crazy," take on a new layer of meaning, one wrapped up in the particular uncertainty and fear of coming out. So she sinks further into the digital world, saying that "I'm going inside the video. Into the computer. Inside the screen," in a moment that straddles an uncertain line between fear and acceptance, as if she's finally making peace with the digital version of her identity, and what that says about who she might become IRL.
What makes World's Fair so compelling as a piece of trans cinema is the way it refuses to explicitly label anything as trans. Instead, it uses the strange, unsettling world of the World's Fair Challenge to create a portrait of the web that leans into ideas of queer life and storytelling in a new way. At its heart, this is a film about transformation, about what it means to feel out of place in your own body, in an identity that always feels slippery and unsettled. Transness lingers beneath the surface; in the way that Casey's relationship with her body becomes increasingly uncertain, and the digital world that she immerses herself in allows her to divorce herself from embodiment and try to find -- through the Challenge, a game that may or may not be real -- a new version of herself.