Director: Bo Burnham
Writer: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger
Genre: Drama, Comedy
I remember clearly when Bo Burnham was making a name for himself on YouTube as a comedy musician. He has since garnered a dedicated following as a stand-up comedian and professional cynic. The idea of his writing and directing a feature film came like a bolt out of the blue, but I was certainly on board.
Violence/Scary Images: The middle school goes through an active shooter drill in which an authority pretends to shoot the kids who didn’t hide properly. He makes the kids repeat what they’re supposed to do during a real school shooting.
Language/Crude Humor: Strong language, often used by teens: “f**k,” “s**t,” “d**k,” “a**,” “g*****n,” “p***y,” “Jesus Christ,” etc. Middle-finger gestures.
Sexual Content: A teen boy is thought to be masturbating in class during a sex ed video about puberty: his T-shirt is pulled over his head and knees, and noises and hand movements can be seen. A girl stares longingly and lustfully at a boy her age. Suggestive comments and conversations about hook-up culture, sharing nude photos, and “how far” Kayla has gone or is willing to go physically with a boy; she tells someone she’s really good at giving blow jobs. Kayla then researches oral sex on YouTube; video screenshots and a brief glimpse of a sex toy are shown. She picks up a banana to, presumably, practice but is interrupted. A boy takes his shirt off during a game of Truth or Dare and asks Kayla to do the same; she refuses.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Spiritual Content: Some unironic theological talk.
Other Negative Themes: Some youthful rebelliousness.
Positive Content: Promotes open communication between teens and parents, including through device-free dinners (in one scene, Kayla is on her phone for a whole meal, until her father asks her to take out her earbuds so they can talk), social media boundaries, and one-on-one sharing of what’s going on at school and personally. Explores the difficulties of going through adolescence in the age of social media–and the courage it takes to love and speak up for yourself as a teen.
Kayla isn’t perfect, but she’s kind, curious, courageous, and hopeful, even during moments of sadness. She learns to love herself and speak up for herself, and she has hope for the future. Her father, though also not perfect, is concerned, caring, and encouraging.
Okay, so you remember when I said quite a few disparaging things about the Netflix animated series Big Mouth some time ago? No? Well, I did. My negative remarks were mostly directed towards its conventional crudity and nihilistic tone. On a positive note, I also said that it was of the right mindset and approach in giving a more untamed exploration of the dark crevices found in middle school preadolescence that countless others stories of a similar topical rung tend to gloss over tangentially if they address those issues at all. After coming away from that experience feeling empty, dissatisfied, and more than a little grossed out, one thought that swam through my mind was the idea that maybe a comedian isn’t the one that is best-suited to tackle such a contentious subject as preadolescence.
Thank God I couldn’t have been more wrong. Of all people, I never would have pegged stand-up comedian Bo Burnham as one suitable for giving a deeply effective and affecting drama on the tumultuous phase of life just before reaching high school level, but that shows what I know. Upon thinking on the matter, it actually would make sense that one as young as Burnham (27 years of age at the time of this writing) would still have some immediate grasp of the harsh realities that the final days before reaching high school tend to impart on all. is comedic style is one that fully embodies the idea that “comedy is just a funny way of being serious”, and there are a lot of funny things to be serious about when it comes to being thirteen years old.
Burnham gives his exploration of the thirteenth year of life in the form of a young girl by the name of Kayla Day (an electric Elsie Fisher). Her story starts off much like Bo’s, but without the actual success. She has as a hobby as a burgeoning YouTube blogger producing short videos giving life advice that she has a terrible time following herself and on subjects she really knows nothing about. This is among the many themes of modern adolescence that Burnham explores here.
Prior to reaching the cusp of adulthood, it seems to be the common fantasy of children to wish and imagine that they were somewhere else. How many stories and tales aimed at the youth involve being spirited away to some fantastical land where anything and everything is possible (besides Spirited Away)? It’s understandable how that’s directed. The early years of childhood are raw potentiality embodied. At that point, the phrase “You can be ANYTHING” is the life slogan. As age and realization of the limits of position and being settle in, potentiality has to morph into actuality. The process of stripping away more and more options as a choice of identity is made can be a violent and disquieting experience, and the nature of wish fulfillment can alter in accordance to the circumstances without losing its potency.
The key difference is that those entering awkwardly into the first phase of adulthood often spend their time wishing and imagining that they were someone else as alternative options of individual identity crop up all around them. In true “grass is always greener” fashion, the crowd of others always seem to be far more preferable as a choice of position or identity, and self-consciousness about one’s own allotment begins to form. It is in this mire of ironic self-loathing and personal detachment that we find Kayla.
The age of information and constant online presence has granted opportunities for one to experiment with other identities and displays, and Kayla does what she can to refashion herself through her unofficial online YouTube persona (which gets virtually no views at all), but even there she is uncomfortable in that new skin. Her intentionally inspiring monologues on personal improvement are peppered with a generous number of “ums” and “likes” and other verbal faux pas that suggest that even she doesn’t have much faith in this online personality of hers. The fifteen-year-old Fisher plays insecurity with remarkable veracity and consistency, indicating that she’s either spent an inordinate amount of time practicing this character or is simply giving voice to a side of herself that’s been needing a voice for some time now.
Kayla’s internal unease and lack of coherence manifests itself into a fractured and piecemeal perception of the world. The field of vision about her is constantly suffocated under a cloud of blurred images and even more blurred people. I was reminded of a similar technique in Darren Aronofsky’s mother! but nothing comparably terrifying to that movie happens here, though it might seem terrifying to one as vulnerable as Kayla.
Kayla is operating among the generation of people who live their lives on their smart devices. The height of their sociable traits come through in the form of hashtags and direct messages. In David Fincher’s The Social Network, Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker quips in a celebratory cadence that as we once lived in the wilderness, on farms, and in the cities, we will soon live on the internet. Some may consider this an exaggeration, but that would be an error as this film suggests. To add to Kayla’s misery, the screen to her favored smart device gets damaged, so that even in her most familiar territory, impairment is not absent.
It’s not as though those with seemingly less-dented perspectives are faring any better in developing sincere emotional attachments with others. With the occasional exception of Kayla and the constant exception of her father Mark (Josh Hamilton), no one around ever seems to be honest either with themselves or with others. The tendency to have and maintain multiple identities across numerous platforms of expression and interaction can be existentially tiring to those still learning to adapt to the very idea of taking responsibility for a concrete personal identity at all. As a result, genuine trust, a staple of any healthy human bond, is scarce and fleeting. When someone actually trustworthy comes in Kayla’s life, she’s unable to respond to it in any way that would make her receptive to what the other has on offer at first.
Considering the state of society that Kayla (and most eighth graders) finds herself, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to find that most people, even those in the higher rungs of the social order, don’t seem to have any clue about how to properly conduct themselves. At one point after suffering a panic attack, Kayla forces herself to participate in a pool party that she was compulsorily invited to. Upon first seeing the other partygoers in their festivities, one could be forgiven for thinking that she had stepped into a pagan sun-worshipper cult from the way the bodies move and writhe. This is very reflective of director Burnham’s own wrestling with introversion and insecurity.
Bo Burnham has stated in his own stage material that online social media was the market responding to a generation of people demanding a platform on which they can perform. As a result, all of life has become little more than an act to impress and gain attention without offering anything of substance to justify the use of the spotlight. Now that the kids have their stage, do they have anything to say? “All the world is a stage”, said Shakespeare, but most of the players clearly didn’t show up for rehearsal. They’re too young to have done so. No wonder they think that their last meal or bowel movement is worthy of a public announcement.
Whether life takes place online or in person, it’s still life, and tragedy still is woven into its fabric. Burnham understands this with ironclad conviction and allows Kayla to have a go at those unfortunate encounters on a few occasions. A major thread involves her pining for the young beau Aiden (Luke Prael) secretly, and violating her own senses of decency to gain his attention. Another heavier moment involves her nearly being violated by a male high school student that she met while shadowing with Emily Robinson’s cheery and enthusiastic Olivia.
I was greatly impressed by the level of restraint that Burnham exercises in this particular scene (take note that this is the same guy who fakes onanism on stage and writes songs with titles like “Kill Yourself”). He understood that the point to which the discomfort escalates is perfectly traumatizing enough for one so young and naïve. I’m sure Burnham would probably say, based on one of his own quotes from his stand-up performances, that a lesser filmmaker would have allowed this to devolve to an actual attempted rape scene; a greater filmmaker wouldn’t have made the scene (or the movie) at all.
That is but a fraction of the self-deprecating attitude that is transfused into the character of Kayla. She desperately wants to see herself as someone worthy of appreciation, admiration, and dignity but sees so little reason to believe that she is, in fact, deserving of such treatment. Near the climax of the film, she receives two encounters with trustworthy male characters in her life that assure her of her worth as a person without undermining the harsh realities that she has encountered or is quite likely to encounter later. Unlike God’s Not Dead, there is nothing in the way of simple wish-fulfillment to be found here. Unlike Big Mouth, there’s no nihilistic cynicism either. There is just raw unbroken honesty.
In making the decision to do away with relics of her past hopes and aspirations, Kayla asks her father if he is ever sad to have her in his life, as she feels that she is just cursed to constantly emit misery from her every facility, no matter how hard she tries to do otherwise. In response, Josh Hamilton delivers through the character of Mark Day a heartfelt and marvelously written soliloquy explaining that he not only loves and cares for Kayla as a bare minimum necessary, but that he personally delights in his relationship with her and eagerly awaits what other joys and blessings her maturation will produce. It is easily the most touching moment in the film and worth the constant states of unease suffered to reach it.
A subplot element given a good deal of importance is Kayla having intermittent conversations between past and present versions of herself. Right before starting middle school, she and the rest of her classmates were given the assignment of making a video recording of themselves asking their future selves about their lot in life and of what they hoped they might have accomplished over the course of four years. Kayla revisits her own video after a number of disappointments and finds that she has let her four-year-younger self down in virtually every manner possible. She is encouraged to not be defeated by her shortcomings, but to learn from them and carry them with her into the next venture with more understanding.
I’m not sure what compelled Burnham to tell this story from the perspective of a young girl. Perhaps the greater degree of vulnerability allowed for a stronger sense of empathy for the many threats and blemishes the character must endure. Fisher is almost never put in any extensive makeup over the course of the film (and when she is, it’s done for the sake of irony), which is another facet of that “raw unbroken honesty” that permeates the whole drama. It may be a little too soon–and too cynical–to call this an Oscar darling, but if there ever was a film this year deserving such an honorific title, this would be it.
+ Expressive camerawork + Strong performances + Humble with its poignancy + Profoundly topical without ever being preachy + Still manages to be genuinely funny
- Barely reaches beyond stereotypes
The Bottom Line
Comedians are more and more becoming the most insightful thinkers among us. This is just one more example of that.