There is perhaps no lonelier place in the world than a platform where a billion people could be listening but nobody actually is.
It's where you'll usually find Kayla in Eighth Grade. She's a painfully shy 13-year-old, voted her middle school's "most quiet," whose daily internet videos (followers: zero) show her to be a poignant and amusingly unreliable narrator of her own life.
Online, she is the girl she'd like to be, confidently giving lessons on how to break the ice with strangers, how to project self-confidence, how to reach out and make friends with … well, the girl who's just been voted "most quiet."
Because you might find out, you know, that this girl, who, you know, stammers and seems awkward, is actually, like, totally worth talking to.
We've all seen the movie where this goes horribly wrong, and cyber-bullies descend. But writer-director Bo Burnham is after something different here, a complex, thoughtful and funny look at the way the internet can insert itself into the coming-of-age search for identity. It's a subject Burnham knows quite a bit about. Just 26, he became an internet celebrity at 16 through comedy videos he posted on YouTube, using social media to build a substantial following – and also to work though his own fears and anxieties.
You can see this at work in Kayla, whose online persona is in many ways a projection of an ideal self. While she's online, the real Kayla and the invented Kayla are in a kind of conversation, almost therapeutic, and the interplay is fascinating. Also funny, as the shy Kayla stumbles through her pre-high school summer vacation, consistently unable to exhibit the polish and self-possession she is able to summon online.
On this journey, Kayla is usually alone. She's raised by a single dad (Josh Hamilton) who's decent and well-meaning but lacking key information to help Kayla navigate the treacherous shoals of female adolescence.
And so we arrive at one of the movie year's most indelible scenes – Kayla arriving at a pool party at the home of a rich/cool kid who's been guilted into inviting her. She shows up in the wrong suit, with the wrong present, and as the socially privileged cavort with effortless camaraderie, Kayla retreats to the shallow end.
In this scene, Burnham's interesting use of POV depicts the crossed-up chaos of adolescence – a be-snorkled nerd tries to impress Kayla with aquatic handstands, while Kayla herself is mesmerized by the slow-motion poolside strut of a teen hunk.
This leads Kayla back to the internet, where she Googles advice on boys and sex. This is where you shudder, and you think of all the creepy ways a tween with unrestricted internet access might research this subject. Burnham conjures the most benign option available, and ends up with a joke about a banana.
Burnham also ends up making a movie about internet immersion that ratifies the importance of human contact. There's a very sweet relationship between Kayla and a female upperclassman (Emily Robinson), a funny first date with the pool nerd (Jake Ryan). And Hamilton has some nice moments as the dad whose clumsy efforts at expressing affection end up, after repeated attempts, a little less clumsy.
For the Kaylas of the world, that's the goal: each day, a life less clumsy.