Posted on July 12, 2018 at 3:02 pm

B+

Maybe this movie should come with a trigger warning. It is so viscerally authentic to the experience of being in middle school that for a moment I felt like I was standing in the lunchroom clutching my tray, desperately hoping that I would (a) be invited to sit with anyone and (b) become invisible, swallowed up by the ground, magically either five years older or younger, or all of those at once.

There’s a reason that even people well into their fifth and sixth and seventh decades still wake up at night after an anxiety nightmare about middle school. Those moments of hormonal, emotional, and cognitive upheavals that cruelly hit us just after we master childhood and make us certain that the adults around us are lame, that we are less lame but somehow lamer than we would like people to think of us as — for most of us, there is nothing as humiliating in any aspect of adult life that is as excruciatingly anxious as any given day in middle school.

Bo Burnham, who starting posting funny videos on YouTube when he was a teenager and became a very successful stand-up comic, is still in his 20’s, so his memories of the teen years are very accessible. Furthermore, he has been very frank about his struggles with anxiety including devastating stage fright. So he naturally turned to watching online videos of young teenagers, and realized that they may not be very sophisticated or articulate, but they are aspirational and brave.

And so we meet the movie’s main character, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she is recording a very aspirational and very brave video about “being yourself.” She is not exactly herself in this video, but she is both the person she would like to be and the person she would like to listen to for guidance.

It is the last week of eighth grade, and there is agony after agony. She tries to talk to the alpha girls. She tries to talk to the boy she likes. She sits through a hilariously painful video about puberty, with a woman who assures them that this experience “is going to be lit!” She is invited to a pool party the hostess does not want her at by the girl’s mother, and she goes to it. Her loving but hapless single dad impinges on her life just by existing and even worse, he wants to TALK to her! And LOOK at her! And tell her she’s cool!!

Kayla gets a glimpse of her past when the “time capsule” she created on the first day of middle school, addressed confidently “to the coolest girl in the world” contains a video she made with her hopes and predictions for where she’d be at graduation. And she gets a glimpse of her future when she “shadows” Olivia, a friendly high school girl (Emily Robinson). We can see that Olivia is not nearly as confident as she would like to appear, but she makes Kayla feel accepted and as though there is a path for her.

SPOILER ALERT: Normally I would not do this, because I try hard to avoid spoilers, but I feel in this case I can mention that while Kayla teeters on the edge of some very bad decisions, she comes out of this okay.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong and crude language and sexual references and a boy tries to pressure Kayla for sex.

Family discussion: If you made a video message to be opened in four years, what would you say? Has social media made middle school easier or harder?

If you like this, try: Rookie’s “Ask a Grown” series and my interview with Burnham, Robinson, and Fisher. There are actually a couple of real-life movies with kids interviewing their older selves, here and here.

Originally published at moviemom.com.

Movie critic, corporate critic and shareholder advocate, critic/editor at @ebertvoices @moviemom, and #corpgov #movies and editor at @miniverpress

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