I love a good coming-of-age story, and Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is a fine example of the genre. It’s charming and excruciating in equal measure, specific to contemporary America yet universal in its appeal. We haven’t all grown up with social media, but we have all endured those painful teenage years, negotiating the complexities of school and home, trying to find where we fit in.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is about to graduate from middle school; she’s lonely and self-conscious, desperate to dispel the myth that she is ‘quiet.’ She vlogs a more outgoing version of herself, but no one seems to be watching; she’s a voyeur, viewing the world through the prism of social media, willing herself to live up to the persona she projects online. Her to-do list is dreadfully sad: get a best friend, be there for them no matter what. She doesn’t want much, but even these small dreams seem beyond her reach.
What’s clever here is the sheer ordinariness of it all. Kayla isn’t odd or unusual; she’s a dorky, awkward everykid. Her dad, Mark (Josh Hamiltion) is a loving parent (her mum is absent; she ‘left’ when Kayla was little, but we don’t find out why, and it doesn’t seem to be a real issue). She isn’t bullied at school; she’s just ignored. Even the stuff that seems scary from the outside – a school shooting drill; an older boy making a pass – doesn’t materialise into anything bigger than Kayla can cope with. This is not a sensationalist film.
Elsie Fisher is delightful in the lead role, as natural and appealing as it’s possible to be. Her vulnerabilities are writ large, but so is her underlying optimism, and the kindness that defines the character. Hamilton is also terrific as Kayla’s devoted dad, patiently struggling to communicate with a daughter who is monosyllabic in his presence, and who reacts angrily to his well-meaning attempts to offer reassurance and love. Theirs is a convincing relationship, a beacon of hope.
As you might expect, there is a lot of humour here too: Burnham is a comedian, after all. But it’s a gentle sort of comedy, delivered with affection; this is, ultimately, life-affirming stuff.
A heart-warming little movie – and one that might just make you want to cut those moody teenagers some slack…