'We're All Going To The World's Fair' Review: A Girl Enters A Mysterious MMORPG And Grapples With Her Identity [Sundance 2021]

Jane Schoenbrun's intimate narrative debut We're All Going to the World's Fair opens with an eight minute unbroken shot that immediately pulls you in. Alone in her bedroom, a high school girl named Casey (Anna Cobb, in her film debut) records a video of herself uttering the same phrase three times, pricking her finger with a pin, smearing blood across her computer screen, and pressing play on a video which bathes her in rapidly changing colors.

That's the price of admission to enter a massive multiplayer online role playing game called The World's Fair, which is described as "the Internet's scariest online horror game" and said to incite physical transformations in those who play it. The rest of the movie (which is executive produced by A Ghost Story director David Lowery) is about Casey documenting and coming to terms with those changes – many of which serve as a metaphor about what it can feel like to experience gender dysmorphia.

Cobb imbues Casey with a quiet sadness, playing her as a thoughtful but insular teenager, an almost anonymous small-town kid who has a bad home life and retreats to the internet out of boredom. She wears dark clothing and seems averse to pop music, which is why it's so disturbing to see her dancing and singing to upbeat music during one of her "symptom" videos. Even though we've only spent a short time with her, we know this is something Casey would not normally be doing – so when she stops mid-dance to let out a piercing, horrifying scream and then jumps right back into upbeat mode, it's one of the most startling and effective moments in the entire film. It's like when the facade drops briefly in Get Out and we see the Sunken Place version of LaKeith Stanfield's character trying to escape before he's overtaken again.

But how much is this something Casey is truly feeling, and how much of it is just a performance for the MMORPG she's participating in? That's a question the film poses throughout, but doesn't significantly engage with until the movie's climactic moments. She likes horror movies and says she wants to be in one, so when she records a video of herself finding a gun that her dad keeps in the family shed, the audience is left wondering if she's just incredibly committed to the bit or if she's actually starting to lose her grip on reality. We see Casey mostly through videos she records of herself, as well as through occasional Skype calls with an older man who goes by the name JLB (Michael J Rogers), who responds to her videos but never shows her his real face. He's a mentor figure of sorts, someone who seems to be experiencing the same malaise and discomfort that Casey is experiencing and tries to guide her through the game – and also, when Casey's videos become so intense that it's unclear if she's still playing – through some real life problems.

At one point, the camera lingers on JLB's computer screen, which is full of notes about the complex mythology behind the game. (Thankfully, the film itself does not get bogged down in any of those details, instead using them as a way to quietly build out the world and make the game feel more fully realized.) On his screen, we can see a note he wrote to himself: "Rewatch The Matrix." That note is not as random as it might initially appear: the Wachowskis' 1999 classic has become a key text in the trans community as an allegory for the experience of being awakened and discovering one's true identity, and there's been some great writing about it over the years that I encourage you to seek out. It's incredibly rare that the trans experience is addressed (or alluded to) in a film as mainstream as The Matrix, and while We're All Going to the World's Fair is obviously not going to end up as a cultural juggernaut on that same level, I suspect this film could end up having an equally powerful effect on its intended audience.

Is this a horror movie? A mystery? A thriller? There are elements of all of those things here, but the movie defies easy categorization, and its low-fi vibe and metaphor-heavy approach will not be everyone's cup of tea. We're All Going to the World's Fair seems uninterested in adhering to genre trappings, instead focusing its attention on ideas about change. Casey talks about having out of body experiences, and through her videos, we see several Paranormal Activity-esque moments in which she seems to totally lose control before eventually snapping back. But it's also about connection, and though her relationship with JLB is unconventional (it's not romantic, or even overtly friendly), it's clear that Schoenbrun wants to impart how important it is to not go on any journey alone.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10