For many, being an adolescent in the ’90s and early 2000s meant unmoderated access to the internet — especially when no one was looking. Like subscriptions to HBO and Cinemax before televisions had parental control capabilities, the family computer opened up an unfiltered world of late-night entertainment and exploration.
Jane Schoenbrun’s feature film debut, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” translates growing up in the time of the early internet into a modern-day coming-of-age story with horror undertones. Schoenbrun takes inspiration from their own experience as a transgender, nonbinary teen growing up in a suburb of New York City at a time when message boards proliferated.
“It was such a big part of my life, the internet, from when the first desktop computer showed up in the basement in the mid-’90s to this evolving relationship of everyone else in the house going to sleep and me creeping downstairs and spending time on my favorite websites,” Schoenbrun, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, told NBC News.
They recalled “exploring a lot of the darker spaces that the internet had to offer, where other people like me were gathering in that nascent, early time, when the internet still felt like this other world, separate from reality.”
The film’s protagonist, Casey, played by newcomer Anna Cobb, finds her own alternative reality in an online role-playing game, which is rumored to have life-altering consequences. Some people report symptoms like not being able to feel pain and turning into plastic, while others sense they’re turning into some kind of monster — metaphors for the gender dysphoria that Schoenbrun came to realize haunted their adolescence.
“What I did know growing up was a constant feeling of unreality, one cut with an ambient sense of shame, self-loathing, and anger,” Schoenbrun said in their director’s statement. “It took me decades to unravel these feelings, and to understand them for what they were — very common symptoms of dysphoria.”
The game at the center of the film, which begins with what the audience comes to know as the World’s Fair Challenge, takes inspiration from the Reddit-originated genre creepypasta, essentially a short horror story that circulates online via copy and paste (think “Bloody” Mary” for the digital age).
In the opening scene, Casey performs the challenge’s first act, repeating “I want to go to the World’s Fair” into the computer camera and then pricking her finger, in a kind of blood sacrifice. From there — through the director’s lens, first-person videos that Casey shares online and what appears to be found footage from other players — the audience is acquainted with Casey’s online persona and isolated offline existence.
In her online videos, Casey appears to be a well-informed student of horror, performing acts of possession that feel reminiscent of ’80s films like “Poltergeist.” How much control she has over these performances, however, is one of Schoenbrun’s many genre-bending turns.
Offline, there’s an air of unspoken tragedy hanging over her life. Casey’s father, who is only present as a voice yelling upstairs, and the rare peripheral figure seem to be more specters than real people.
But then Casey is approached online by JLB (Michael J. Rogers), a much older man who claims to be a kind of World’s Fair Challenge watchdog. At one point, as if being sucked through the screen, the audience is dropped into JLB’s world, where it’s impossible not to search for clues as to his intentions with Casey.
But, like with Casey, who exactly JLB is on and offline is difficult to parse — and that’s just how Schoenbrun wants it.
“In the same way that Casey is performing herself for us — or for him or for the anonymous audience of the internet — the film is really interested in the way that it’s performing itself for you at home watching it,” Schoenbrun said. “There’s a frustrating ambiguity in the way that we are left to ask ourselves questions about his intentions, and we’re left to ask ourselves questions about Casey’s intentions and perhaps even my own intentions.”
Schoenbrun referred to this as a “nonbinary way of thinking about the emotions and ideas in your movie,” explaining that the film isn’t concerned with whether characters are “good” or “bad” in a traditional sense.
“It’s about leaving people with stuff to unpack for themselves afterward,” they said.
Watching “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” there’s often a sense that Schoenbrun — like Casey — is toying with their audience. They use the conventions of horror and coming-of-age stories to invite the audience to make assumptions, which are never really confirmed or overturned.
But it’s also an incredibly serious film, packed into an 86-minute run time. The vulnerability of adolescence is palpable, as is the director’s relationship with the lead character.
“I think of it as a film about a frustrated artist,” Schoenbrun said. “Casey is an artist and is trying to explore something through art in these sorts of spaces online.”
For Schoenbrun, message boards provided an early space to share their writing, well before they could “actualize creatively, in reality.” That relationship to an online audience, which provided a welcoming if sometimes dangerous space, largely shaped the character of Casey — and so did the director’s adolescent reality offline.
“I was writing a sort of emotional logic that felt really personal to me from that time. A lot of that was being smart, being angry, being creative and being filled with self-loathing and shame. What a nice little cocktail to have as a 14-year-old in the suburbs,” Schoenbrun said, almost with a laugh, adding that you can see those feelings reflected in Casey throughout the film.
As part of its exploration of adolescence and coming-of-age, “We’re all Going to the World’s Fair” inevitably deals with teen suicide. From the beginning of the film, there are hints that Casey is struggling with the idea of suicide. (In an early scene that shows her at her most vulnerable, she checks on a gun stored in the house after abandoning making one of her videos because she thinks no one will care.) And she talks about it more and more as she becomes immersed in the game and acts out, to whatever degree, the effects it’s having on her.
It’s a subject Schoenbrun said they were hyperaware of while working on the film.
“It’s such a core part of the unconscious experience of growing up without the right support system as a queer person, or existing as an adult without the right support system as a queer person. How can it not haunt the work?” Schoenbrun said, alluding to a famous line written by the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the essay “Queer and Now”: “I think everyone who does gay and lesbian studies is haunted by the suicides of adolescents.”
But addressing head-on this reality that is, for many, an unavoidable part of growing up as a queer person didn’t come without its difficulties.
“As an artist, you have this responsibility to ask yourself — especially when your work is going to be speaking viscerally to a vulnerable population — where is the line between the work as communing around real things and the work as too brutal, or something that could it hurt more than it helps?” they said. “We create a lot of conventions about what is and isn’t allowed in our media to avoid having to think deeply about that question, and I’m thinking deeply about that question presently, through my work.”
“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” opens in select theaters Friday and nationwide April 22.
Follow NBC Out on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram