Stand-up comedian turned writer-director Bo Burnham makes a stunning debut with this charming, warmhearted and beautifully-observed coming-of-ager, about a 13-year-old girl navigating her final week of middle school.
Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla Day, whose chirpy online presence on her vlog channel (where she dispenses advice about self-confidence to an extremely small number of followers) isn’t quite reflected in her personal life, in which she struggles to even get her classmates to notice her, let alone make friends. As the end of the school year approaches, Kayla lands an invite to a popular girl’s pool party, where she hopes to make an impression on her oh-so-cool boy crush Aiden (Luke Prael), but things don’t quite go according to plan.
A relative newcomer to live action (but, delightfully, the voice of adorable Agnes in the Despicable Me movies), Fisher is nothing short of extraordinary as Kayla, delivering a naturalistic, heartfelt performance that is utterly charming. In particular, she has an open, expressive face that makes you feel every emotion like a knife to the heart - consequently you spend the entire movie hoping desperately that nothing bad happens to her.
This is unquestionably Fisher’s film, as she’s in every scene, but she gets terrific support from Josh Hamilton (the film’s only recognisable face) as her single dad, Mark, and the scenes where father and daughter tentatively acknowledge the shifts in their relationship now Kayla is growing up are sensitively handled. In addition, there are strong turns from Emily Robinson (as a slightly older girl who takes an interest in Kayla) and from Jake Ryan as Gabe, a nerdy guy who talks to her at the pool party.
Burnham’s astutely observed script is packed full of wonderful moments, from an opportunistic, cringe-worthy chat during a school shooting drill (a telling detail in and of itself) to little details, such as Kayla cutting her finger on her broken, ever-present phone screen - a metaphor for the pain of modern-day adolescence if ever there was one.
It may seem unusual that a 27-year-old man is able to tap so perceptively into the 13-year-old experience, but that’s what Burnham has pulled off here, complete with a note-perfect rendition of present-day teenspeak (much of it scripted rather than improvised). This is reinforced by the direction, which foregrounds Kayla’s perspective at all times, making the entire film achingly personal, but also finding plenty of humour in her experience, without ever laughing at her.
As for the traditional coming-of-age movie staples, you’re constantly expecting (or rather, dreading) them, and they’re present and correct, but they don’t play out quite the way you expect. Let’s put it this way - this isn’t Welcome to the Dollhouse, despite their similar subject matter.
Ultimately, Burnham’s film has much to say about growing up, about hopes and dreams, and about fantasy and reality. It also presents a remarkably perceptive portrait of the way present-day adolescents live their lives online.
In short, this is a superbly written, brilliantly directed and sublimely acted coming-of-age drama that marks out both Burnham and Fisher as serious talents to watch. It’s also one of the best films of the year. Don’t miss it.