Review by Jacquelin Hipes
In these divided times, we can still all agree on one thing: middle school is hell. The explosion of social media over the last decade has created a minefield unlike anything today’s parents—or even older siblings—had to navigate in their adolescence. Eighth grader Kayla (Elsie Fisher) has a particularly rough time of it. Surrounded by the seemingly perfectly curated lives of her classmates, she goes to great lengths in order to appear as effortlessly cool. She wakes up early to follow make-up tutorials and then post “just woke up like this!” selfies; she rehearses conversations in the mirror; and she summons a gargantuan level of bravery to say hello to her crush after an assembly. None of it seems to work, though. Her YouTube channel gets barely any views and the only person her age who notices Kayla is the awkward cousin of the most popular girl in school.
Things do look up after a visitation day at the high school. Buddied up with senior Olivia (Emily Robinson), Kayla slowly opens up under her kind and positive attention. Even though they’re only four years apart in age, though, her friendship with Olivia opens Kayla up to an entirely new set of dangers and pitfalls that she isn’t quite prepared to deal with.
Bo Burnham’s script (he also directed) perfectly captures the awkwardness, the humor, and the terrible gravity of our early teenage years. The pressure to be “normal” and accepted, beyond any allowance for staying true to yourself, comes through in the pained quiet of a girl who actually has quite a lot to say. Fisher does a superb job navigating both the absurdities and the earnestness of that age, making Kayla tremendously easy to root for. Josh Hamilton has a memorable turn as Kayla’s single father. His oftentimes embarrassing dad antics should look familiar to many viewers, although it’s a heartfelt conversation with his daughter near the end of the film that steals the show.
By the end of her final week in eighth grade, Kayla has grown. She speaks up for herself. She sees the start of a new friendship. Are things so much better than seven days ago? We don’t know, and neither does Kayla. But with change comes hope, and weren’t we all looking for a little more of that when we were thirteen too?
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