This is a coming-of-age film – but one with a difference. It is not a rom-com, or even a com (I hated all those There’s Something About Maryand high school films in those genres); rather it is a drama with some funny lines. It is also as accurate a depiction of teenage anxiety and cruelty in existence off-the-page as I’ve seen.
13 year-old Kayla (in real life 13 year-old Elsie Fisher) is about to graduate from Eighth Grade in middle school. She is spotty and paralysed by shyness in public; but her alter YouTuber ego is that of a vlogger, posting self-help movies on ‘Putting yourself out there’ and Being yourself’, her spots magically disappearing on screen (perhaps thanks to the YouTube on make-up we catch her watching).
For this is the social media generation, where teens are glued to their phones, conversation barely exists, and SnapChat and Instagram are the main means of communication. It’s a natural landscape for Bo Burnham who rose to fame via the internet. His objective in making the film was to speak out for those who live their lives online and who have been characterised as ‘self-obsessed, narcissistic, shallow’ but are, in fact, merely self-conscious.
Kayla’s father (Josh Hamilton), a single parent, adores his gawky daughter but, without a mother’s influence, is unable to escape embarrassing dad behaviour, for instance barging into her bedroom without knocking to say a bare-chested goodnight, never being able to do or say the right thing at the right time (there’s a great drive scene where this plays out), and spying on her on her first night out. He is intensely irritating like all dads, yet one can’t help but feel his heart at least is in the right place.
This is in strong contrast to Kaya’s class-mates, who studiously ignore her as she slinks by with stooping shoulders, ace-scarred face framed by lanky hair. Yet when she smiles there is a beauty – it’s just that its reserved for the screen and not for real-life. An invitation to a class swimming party is so excruciating for Kayla that you want to curl up and die with her.
At the end-of-year round-up she wins the accolade of ‘Quietest girl in the school’, not exactly an honour. As she herself says, ‘growing up can be a little bit scary and weird’ and no more so than in her first encounters with boys. She throws herself awkwardly at the winner of the ‘best eyes’ prize during a drill to teach the kids how to react if they have a Columbine-style attack. To a European audience it is insane that a school actually trains kids for such a horrendous event, and Burnham milks the sinister with the comedy for all it’s worth.
Even when Kayla, in one of the rare bright moments of the film, meets her High School mentor, Olivia (Emily Robinson) who is kind, affectionate and inclusive, there remains a real threat of the danger that her childish willing-to-please nature exposes her to.
Having been an overweight and spotty 13 year-old myself (those spots! I spent most of the film trying to work out if they were for real – they literally pulsate) I empathised a lot with Kayla. The agony of acne and carrying those extra pounds is soul-destroying and, unless you have some measure of self-confidence, can be crippling as it is to poor Kayla.
However, the film is not all bleak, although sometimes one wonders where the narrative will take us. The glimmers of hope arise out Kayla’s refusal to be beaten down, whatever is thrown in her path, her determination to try and take her own advice despite the lack of followers for her vlog, and her ability to give people a chance even when they don’t give her that opportunity themselves. She has a strong sense of right and wrong, and that can only be for the good.Having said all of that, it is not really my kind of film (just as I hate The Office, far too much cringe for comfort), but I recognise a good piece of film-making, and some great acting.