TV-MA because it is just one of those disturbing films. While there isn't much that is necessarily gory, it does always threaten to show some messed up stuff. In terms of graphic imagery, there are intentionally crude images of violence. Rather, the bigger takeaway are some of the themes of mental illness, pedophilia, and murder throughout the film. It's not easy to watch at times.
DIRECTOR: Jane Schoenbrun
I swear that I'm not shirking my writing responsibilities. I just haven't seen any movies for the past week. That's pretty insane for me, considering that I used to watch a movie a day. It's been one of those situations where real life never gave me the opportunity to sit down and watch a movie. Okay, I could have not taken a nap during the Paw Patrol movie, but that was a choice to avoid writing about it. It's funny, I write these very off-topic warm-ups. The entire notion about blogging in regards to a movie about Internet attention isn't lost on me. I know that only a few people read this blog, one of whom is a bot from Turkey who posts ads on my Blade Runner page. But unlike Casey, this blog is mostly for me anyway. (That being said, I miss my old numbers.)
I forgot how this movie fell on my radar. Maybe it was io9. Maybe it was something else. But I remember thinking that this was going to be one of those life-changing movies. To a certain extent, it is. It's hard to talk about this movie to people who haven't seen it. Again, many people won't end up watching it, so I have no problem dropping spoilers in this blog. But my big takeaway is that it is almost a genre unto itself. I would say that this movie has peers, like Eighth Grade or We Need to Talk about Kevin. But in terms of genre --or more accurately, subgenre --it is its own unique brand of horror. It is one of those movies where you wait for the other shoe to drop. I think we've been conditioned so long to associate imagery with trope that when the movie doesn't follow a tried-and-true path, it comes off as a little alienating for us. The movie starts with the inciting incident. Casey, in the opening of the film, is doing something called "The World's Fair Challenge." From the first shot of the film, we get what the director is commenting on. This is a film about the YouTube generation, where primarily adolescents fight over how their fifteen minutes of fame are going to look like.
We don't need to know about "The World's Fair Challenge." I mean, I can't deny that seeing the opening credits list something about "The World's Fair", which only piqued my attention, despite the fact that I'm supposed to be above such things. But the imagery in that initial shot, coupled with the worldbuilding that Schoenbrun brings to the rest of the film, indicates the world of Creepypasta. There's something underground and off-kilter about Casey and the real-estate she occupies on the Internet. We've been given the lesson before that we should not mess with demonic forces or else we ask for the supernatural to influence us. The tales that the Boomer generation warn us about come true and that's what makes a horror movie. But Schoenbrun never really lets us know through direct means whether "The World's Fair" has anything to do with reality until you take the film as a whole.
We can substitute "The World's Fair" for lots of different things that act as scapegoats for societal ills, especially those involving teenagers. Casey, desperate for attention (not judging her, but stating a fundamental element of her character), tends to lean towards things that others might find anti-social. She wears shirts evocative of heavy metal bands (although I am woefully ignorant of this subculture). She gets into Creepypasta fiction. She's deep into horror and has a YouTube page that is going unviewed. (Remember, kids, share the link literallyanythingmovies.com with your friends!) But what the film is about is that nothing in this world is making Casey lose her mind. Casey is dealing with a genuine undiagnosed mental illness and her only means of self-medicating are these outlets. It's a movie about correlation versus causation; about cause versus effect. I love that the movie puts so much emphasis on "The World's Fair Challenge" because it gives us a look into the world of this fictional subculture. It plays with the notion of tropes and archetypes and subverts those ideas. If the point of horror movies is to deliver scares that make us feel safe afterwards, this movie straight up tells you that things are not going to be okay and the real world is actually quite upsetting.
I want to clarify that last idea. I was talking to my students about horror movies. I don't know if this surprises you, but a lot of high schoolers really like scary movies. A lot of them don't. I don't judge either way. But one of the conclusions that we came to is the dopamine rush of an adrenaline comedown. When we get scared in a horror movie, we feel danger for a split second before gaining instant relief. We are not in danger. A fictional character is in danger, but our brain can't tell the difference. We let off instant cool down, in the form of laughter or hyperventilation. Contrast this with real danger and you can probably get where I'm going with this. I used the example of getting in a near accident. When we drive and nearly get into a catastrophic accident, our adrenaline spikes and stays spiked. We don't know we're safe for quite a while. Realistically, we shouldn't be driving. It's why that kind of scare is unhealthy. But We're All Going to the World's Fair introduces a new kind of scare. The very notion of being savvy horror movie viewers makes us have a sense of dramatic irony. All movies where the protagonist does a dumb challenge that is meant to have supernatural consequences is supposed to pay off with supernatural results.
But that's not what the movie does. If anything, what we see is a world of lies. It's the Ouija board all over again. Casey tells herself that she's experiencing symptoms of this event. But she's also the same person who has to Google what symptoms other game players have had. Sitting out in the woods without a coat on may be a fun first step towards a descent into madness, but it is also something that is easily faked. And that's what we get for the majority of the movie. Between the other videos that she watches and what they are experiencing, our movie-watching mind can't wait to see something real. In the worst way, we are JLB. We are voyeurs, waiting for something real and haunting to happen to Casey. But we want to define what happens to Casey. There needs to be this sense of justice. She has messed with the universe and the forces of the afterlife; clearly there must be a comeuppance. Instead, we get the story of a very sad girl who very well might become a school shooter. Her threats against her father may be part of some elaborate form of storytelling, but it seems like she's using that story to tell a truth. She wants to kill her dad and she is using the World's Fair to excuse her behavior.
There's one scene in the movie that absolutely destroys for me. It's when JBL exits "the game." Like any concerned dungeon-master (he's totally a pedophile and I want to talk about him before I'm done), he sidebars out of character and reminds Casey that his is a game. Casey's reaction in this moment is perfect. Like all placebo effects, Casey has to lie to herself about what is real and what is fake. There's something almost religious to her interpretation of signs of the supernatural. Like many people overwhelmed by the spirit, I genuinely believe that Casey thinks that her behavior is caused by The World's Fair Challenge. But when JBL sidebars with her, all of that comes crashing down. She feels like that stupid little kid at the beginning. This World's Fair Challenge gave her the permission to act like a violent person and now she has to pretend that it was all fake? That's heartbreaking. But it is similar to the thing that hypnotists and tent revivals do. I'm not saying that all spiritual experiences are false. What I am saying is that some people desperately need therapy and they get a version of therapy from excusing themselves from social norms.
JBL is gross. I was going to write a whole thing about this. But that end sequence, while intentionally cryptic, doesn't read with the rest of the film. I can't see Casey having a healthy life in another state. Also, his constant stressing of the contact that he is making with her screams that this unsaid voyeurism has a perversion behind it. It's really upsetting. But even more than upsetting, it is oddly more sad than scary. JBL believes that he is the hero of the story. He sees what he is doing as innocent. I love that he has a luxurious house because it is such a juxtaposition to what Casey is dealing with on the farm. He has nothing in common with Casey, yet he yearns for a taboo connection. It uses horror as a justification and an invitation to be creepy. But JBL is creepy. It's that fine level between a game and real life. When Casey is shocked that the whole thing is a game, she's not exactly at fault for doing so. It's about manipulation and kicks and it comes across as super gross.
Did Casey kill her dad? I think so. I really do. JBL, as our only source of info at the end, is perhaps the most unreliable narrator imaginable. He's this guy who really needs the world to be scripted to make him the good guy. Yes, he sat there with his hand against the screen. We saw that. But nothing about Casey screams what he claims. Instead, we're left with a broken girl who doesn't know what's real. Even more than that, Casey, with her realization that The World's Fair is a game, has to come face-to-face with the real truth that everything that she did and everyone that she threatened came from her. That's why mental health is so important, because there is a responsibility when it comes to the consequences. It wasn't The World's Fair that was threatening the kill her father. It was her. All of that was in her and scripted by her. She may not want to believe that, but it has to have some kind of outlet. Yeah, I wish I had a concrete answer to what happened to Casey. But on the other hand, the movie didn't really set up for this big bombastic ending. There was one moment when Casey leaves the frame, post Day-Glo paint and I thought that she was just going to shoot her dad. Sure, that doesn't happen. But like JBL, we write little stories justifying our actions. Thank God for me that Casey is a fictional character, or else every adult male watching this movie would have more in common with JBL than with Casey.
It's a powerhouse of a film. I don't know if I love it or not, simply because there is the slow stretching out of a premise. But it is a great movie that doesn't offer solace for the questions it raises. It doesn't provide a safe haven for troubling issues. And, as I mentioned, it doesn't make you feel comfortable about being safe in your house afterwards.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.