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Instead of asking queer people between the ages of 18 and 40 when they came out, try asking them what internet platform they used as kids to inappropriately talk to strangers. This thing that felt so private and taboo has revealed itself to be almost universal. Endless confused kids in chatrooms, on forums, finding the connections that eluded us in life. It’ll surprise no one — as I am at this moment writing a film review — that my platform of choice was a film forum. From ages 13 to 17, under the guise of discussing movies, I told adults in different cities things I would never tell my friends. And they told me things they probably shouldn’t have been telling a teenager. There were only two other kids on the forum. One of them is now also trans.
Trans filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun’s uncategorizable horror film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair manifests the unsettling nature of these fraught connections. We’re first introduced to Casey (Anna Cobb) as she’s about to embark on The World’s Fair Challenge, a creepypasta-inspired RPG where committing to the game and watching a video promises unique biological and psychological changes. Casey watches videos of other participants that range in grotesquery. It’s unclear from the beginning if Casey understands this is a game, or thinks it’s real, and I felt unclear as the film went along if I understood it was a game, or if I was starting to think it was real too.
The introduction of an adult male internet stranger (Michael J Rogers) who begins guiding Casey is when the film goes from fantastically creepy to relatably disquieting. Even if the game itself is not real, men who are too invested in the lives of teenage girls are very real. Casey is lonely and the connection she forms with this stranger brings her comfort, but as they get in deeper and deeper with each other my stomach turned more and more.
I don’t scare easy, but Schoenbrun’s total formal control and the unexpected nature of the film scene to scene left me genuinely frightened. I’m being vague, because I think it works best taken as an experience, but there are visual and emotional moments that will stay burrowed in my mind for a long time.
What I don’t need to be vague about is Anna Cobb’s performance as Casey. So much of the film is spent with her and so much of what we see is through her eyes. None of the formal inventiveness would work if it wasn’t grounded by a real person at its center. This may be her first feature, but she brings an immense amount of nuance to each moment. It’s made all the more impressive by the fact that she’s basically acting opposite only herself for most of the film.
While the film isn’t explicitly about transness, much of the film feels like an expression of dysphoria and a uniquely trans loneliness. Casey’s decision to enter a challenge that promises to transform her feels trans. The wrongness Casey begins to feel during the game — and that she admits to having felt before the game — feels trans. The way it plays with body horror and identity and reinvention feels trans. And sitting behind a computer screen as a depressed teen wondering if you should make up another story or just kill yourself, unfortunately, also feels trans.
That’s what’s so special about watching a film from a trans filmmaker this audacious and experimental. It doesn’t have to engage with transness in the expected ways to resonate with a trans audience. It certainly resonated with me. Maybe too much.
It’s easy to lock your doors after a monster movie. But when the online horrors are an escape from our inner terror, it’s more difficult to log off.
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