“Being yourself” is the first topic in a string of motivational videos made by Kayla (Elsie Fisher), the main character of Bo Burnham’s dynamic coming-of-age feature, and the irony is not lost on anyone. Kayla’s YouTube videos only get one to maybe three views on average, she’s an anxious eighth-grade girl who is on the verge of finishing middle school and entering high school, and she struggles with defining herself. Weaved into this brilliantly candid film, Burnham’s directorial debut, is a narrative of how social media affects the life of a young anxious person such as Kayla, and it works on every level.
Bo Burnham became famous on YouTube in the very early days. With comedic songs such as “i'm bo yo.”, “New Math” and “My whole family...”, he was one of the earliest to go viral, back when viral wasn’t just The Tonight Show clips. Instead, in the era of “Chocolate Rain” and “Potter Puppet Pals”, Burnham moved to release comedy albums and comedy specials such as “Make Happy” and “WHAT”. Now, Burnham has written and directed one of the most honest depictions of anxiety and the internet, and this is accomplished without the word ‘anxiety’ ever being mentioned in the film. In a Rolling Stone magazine interview, he remarks that he wanted to explore the part of the “internet that gets excluded from the conversation, which is quite subtle, sacred, nervous people.”
“Burnham has written and directed one of the most honest depictions of anxiety and the internet, and this is accomplished without the word anxiety ever being mentioned in the film”
Kayla is that nervous person. She is constantly interacting with the internet, just like almost everyone else in the film: from students going around the school on their phones, to Kayla’s dad sitting in the living room on his iPad. She shoots motivational Youtube videos in which she attempts to give advice and is positive and encouraging, as she herself tries to get a grip on the world around her through these videos.
Burnham claims that a lot of inspiration for the film was based on watching young people on YouTube expressing themselves, kids who barely had any views and who speak frankly about themselves, an element Burnham says makes these videos deeply moving and so human. Kayla tries to behave like a successful YouTube vlogger, and it is this pressure to be successful on the internet, to appear always as this polished, rehearsed, edited version of herself, that fuels the film's narrative of dealing with anxiety. In a study in the UK highlighted by the Guardian, teenagers admitted how social media made them feel “inadequate”. It also stated that “more than half (57%) think social media creates ‘overwhelming pressure” to succeed”. The internet only shows you the best versions of people, and people who project an aura of success almost speak this success into existence through faking it with highly curated personas.
“Burnham claims that a lot of inspiration for the film was based on watching young people on YouTube expressing themselves”
Kayla’s character is engulfed by this pressure to be an edited version of herself. In one scene she gets up in the morning, does her makeup and then gets back into bed to take a photo with the caption “just woke up like this.” This takes its toll on people like Kayla, and the film captures how social media heightens feelings of inadequacy; in a later scene, Kayla succumbs to insecurities surrounding her bodily that have been amplified by social media, reaching its pinnacle with a panic attack at a pool party. The film captures this authentically and respectfully.
As someone says at some point in the film, younger generations are “wired differently”, as they begin to engage with social media at younger and younger ages. There is a persistent engagement with the internet which the film doesn’t necessarily claim this to be negative or positive, preferring to reflect reality honestly. The ending is perfectly bittersweet as Kayla doesn’t reject the internet or anything drastic. Instead, she decides to take her own advice from her first video.