Bo Burnham’s obscenely accomplished directing debut should probably come with a trigger warning. It so vividly evokes the awkwardness and self-sabotage of adolescence that it will make anyone who was even moderately uncool in school – i.e. basically everyone – break out in a stress sweat and thank god they made it out of puberty alive.
Burnham’s teenagers don’t speak in well-honed jokes or snappy wisdom. They mumble, stumble and blurt the wrong thing in the hope people will like them. They are painfully, heartbreakingly real.
Most heartbreaking of them all is Kayla (Elsie Fisher). She is a completely unremarkable 13-year-old in the final week of middle school. She’s far from popular, but nor is she a special target for bullies. She’s just quietly there – even voted ‘Most Quiet’ by her class. Few in the school would notice if she didn’t show up for a few weeks. Kayla doesn’t want to be anonymous. She wants to be noticed. She makes YouTube videos about how to navigate teenage life, which nobody watches, ending them all with a nonsensical attempt at a catchphrase, cheerily squeaking “Gucci” while making an ‘ok’ hand signal. She treats an invite to a popular kid’s party like her big break, practicing conversation and trying to train herself to be convincingly unimpressed by everything. She is, in short, a very common type of teenager. She thinks everyone else has everything figured out and she’s the only one who’s struggling.
Kayla, like any 13-year-old, is trying to work out who she is and where she fits in. Burnham, who is only 27 and used to be a YouTube ‘personality’, is the rare director who can take on teen culture without looking like an old geezer waving his fist at the youth of today. He doesn’t judge the kids as being superficial phone-addicts, but lays out that this is the high-expectation world they live in. Popularity is driven by likes on Instagram or views on YouTube. Kids are expected to know all about sex and can just look up anything they don’t know. It’s a snapshot of a particular time. All the technology and social platforms will probably be redundant in a few years, but that’s kind of the point: adolescence is always difficult, but the ways to make you feel bad about yourself are ever changing.
In Fisher, Burnham has found a naturally sympathetic, completely believable actress. She’s so authentic in scenes where Kayla feels out of her depth or alone in crowded rooms that you want to weep for her, to tell her it will all be fine. She gets there herself eventually, as most people do, but her emotional journey to get there feels like an epic quest. It’s a by turns uplifting and crushing reminder of what it’s like trying to become yourself and a reason to be grateful you never have to do it again.