I was in middle school when my life suddenly began to shift to being online. Like any pre-teen that feels misunderstood, the internet was a place to find the people that think like you, or would rather talk about their interests than themselves. But the main thing the internet gave me was a place to be heard without needing to be seen. It gave me a way to form my identity without it being tied to my body — something I still struggle with. And although everyone around me was becoming more aware of themselves through the lens of social media at the same time, I steered away from anything that forced me to turn on the front camera of my devices, wanting to instead create everything from my eyes. I didn’t get Snapchat until college, and even then it was only for a brief period of time, and my Instagram presence when I was more active was mostly about documenting what I saw. I still to this day often find ways to decline requests to FaceTime. When I do feel the desire to be seen through a screen, it is often when I am feeling myself become detached and am trying to be pulled back in. The internet has given me the space to decide exactly when and how I want to be seen, and when I want to remain formless. I’ve been wary to admit this and welcome in others’ opinions on where the discomfort stems from, but watching We’re All Going to the World’s Fair opened me up in a way where I am finally okay with voicing it. I am comfortable admitting that at times I am scared of my own vessel and what I’ve believed or have been told it has to be.
In We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, the debut feature by Jane Schoenbrun, Casey (played brilliantly by Anna Cobb) doesn’t seem to have the same fear as me, or at least she doesn’t confront it in the same way. She makes videos in a dark attic, lit up by a computer screen and glow in the dark stars that are plastered all over the angled walls. She allows herself to be seen, but is still able to remain ambiguous. When she decides to participate in the World’s Fair Challenge, we stick on her as she watches the video, and see her face shapeshift as the screen flashes with different colors. Through a screen your face is never quite the same, and the light is in control of how it’s presented. Later on in the film, Casey paints her face in front of a mirror — she does it kind of slowly, watching herself transform in front of her own eyes. Once she is in front of the camera, her face glowing the same shade as the stars, it’s like she doesn’t recognize herself at all. Through changing her appearance she is able to inhabit something completely new and becomes unleashed. She tears into her beloved stuffed lemur while watching herself back through the screen. Her identity has been taken over, and while she’s convinced it is through the challenge, it’s really through her ability to look in the mirror and see the possibility of being something else. It’s the scene that follows though that really spoke to me. Casey lays on the floor with the lights now on, her face still covered but no longer glowing, and she strokes the dismembered pieces of her stuffed animal, confronted with the uneasiness of knowing what she can be. It felt to honor the difficulty of navigating your identity, both the chaos, and then the calm that settles in during the aftermath.
What I love about the title of the film is how it implies plurality, but the two characters that we get to know are always separated. The thing about being online is you know other people are there; all participating in the same things, watching the same things, feeling the same things, but still alone. There will always be a barrier. It’s something you get used to, and at times the internet can feel more communal than being in a room full of people. Being online is about being internal, and connecting through that loneliness. When you’re in a crowded room, you can be alone without anyone knowing or caring. Like Casey, I turned to the internet to be listened to; to be cared for. And what I found in my teenage years was the people that read something I wrote all wanted that feeling reciprocated. I, like many others, ended up talking to people much older than I was, starting by talking about movies or music, and gradually dipping into something more intimate. As a fifteen year old, I found myself interacting regularly with a man in his mid-thirties who claimed to just want to talk about movies. All of his messages to me on Tumblr (back then fittingly called “Fan Mail”) would start off with “Dear Friend”, something that came from the main character of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s easy as a teen to brush things off and go along with what is presented to you, especially if you are craving a certain kind of tenderhearted connection. But after a while I began to realize that something was happening without my knowing — that this person was relying on me emotionally more than I signed up for. I would distance myself by ignoring messages for a couple days, but was met with troubling messages in return. For the first time, a place that freed me felt like it was trapping me. In this place where I thought I controlled my identity, I was still being constructed into someone else, and asked to be something I didn’t want to be. I look back at that time now and it seems like it was so long ago. I didn’t hold onto the details of how I got out of it, but I know it took a long time to fizzle out. Like Casey and JLB’s relationship, I think he just wanted me to keep posting, confirming I was okay. It didn’t deter me from continuing to converse with people online for long, but was instead just marked as this singular incident. I tried my best to move on and to reclaim my space.
What Schoenbrun does is gives space to the person on the other side of these interactions. The person that watches, grows attached, and cares for someone that still seems to have all these possibilities they’re unaware of. The first time I saw JLB (played by Michael J Rogers), the protective figure that reaches out to Casey, I was reminded of my own youth, and the fear that is mixed with curiosity when a person finally speaks back to you. I was reminded that it wasn’t just me in that scenario, but there was someone on the other end that had to deal with a loss and figure out how to move on when it became too much for me. I’ve wondered how someone was able to invest so much time in me, but now I see the other room, and I see how bleak it was there too. Casey uploads videos of herself sleeping throughout the night without watching them herself, but JLB watched them for her, tracking every second to see when she moves, breathes, or becomes possessed. His own loneliness consumes him so much that he takes on this role, hoping that she will feel his commitment to her well-being. I think it’s a way to say “I recognize myself in you, and I need you to survive so I can too”. So while I don’t hold onto any guilt for the choice I made to cut myself loose from my own observer, I do understand it clearer for the first time. We were looking for the same thing; he had just been looking for a lot longer.
When I woke up this morning, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair was the first thing I thought of. What I didn’t feel was the desire to immediately grab my phone like usual. I just sat there for a minute, letting the film creep back in. But the longer I sat, the safer I felt. I think it’s because after all these years of trying to be seen as one thing, and trying not to be seen for another, I finally was able to see myself through Jane’s film. It takes a true artist to look at something so nuanced and translate it into something that entire generations will understand to some degree. But what I’m really soothed by and excited for is the others like me who have spent years of their lives behind screens, molding their identities, to watch it and see themselves too. Maybe they’ll also wake up the next morning and not feel the urge to immediately get to work on presenting themselves, but will instead just sit with what they’ve already built.