There are three stages to watching Bo Burnham’s Inside:
1. Just before starting it
2. While watching it,
3. And after watching it.
The first stage, as usual, will have your mind ready with expectations. The next two stages are Bo Burnham completely razing any kind of expectations you had about a pandemic production; all the while demolishing, reconstructing and then demolishing a part of you, inside you.
Before going further, I am going to make a statement that Martin Scorsese will disagree with: Bo Burnham’s Inside is cinema. Roger Ebert once wrote that cinema is the only medium that can incorporate all of the other art forms in the world and hence the easiest medium to generate emotions in the audience. Here, Burnham doesn’t just consider that, he makes the feature based on that, cramming it with every art form he is capable of. (He even put a video game inside this!) My Letterboxd profile reads thus: “I know how to defend my favourite movies.” Burnham has put me in a tight spot here: I love this with all my heart, but I can’t rationalise why.
Inside is seemingly simple on its surface but mysterious in its workings. It has no structure but it has a heart. And here, Burnham proves that structure can be toyed with when honesty is at the core. And just because it is completely inside a room doesn’t mean that it’s thematically shallow. In fact, it’s the opposite: consider the simple part of a reaction video upon a reaction video upon a reaction video. It is thematically closer to Synecdoche, New York than Inception is. Except for the scale of course. But this is where Burnham proves that scale is not necessary for highly-meta mind-benders. If anything, it’s richer than most films we see.
Now let me lean forward and try to put in words why I felt so much while watching this: is it because of the songs? Maybe. Is it because of his unflinching honesty about everything? Maybe. Is it because of the scathing social commentary through these songs? Is it because of extraordinarily relatable mental health struggles? Is it because of the difficulty of being artistic during tough times?
The more I break down every aspect that appears in the movie to explain my love for it, the more I tend to move into vague territory while moving further away from the point I want to make.
Part of why I’m writing this is because I myself am looking for answers to justify why this is so good. And I have come to the realisation that the cliché “some things are meant to be felt, not understood” holds true for this one. There is not a single thread of continuity or a comforting structure here to ease into while sipping on Coke. Yet the editing is phenomenal. Nothing here is beyond comprehension, but the sum of these parts appears intangible; magical even. Together, they feel imperfectly balanced.
Instead of vaguely putting my thoughts here, let me describe a scene. Bo Burnham is playing a video game and doing commentary like in a livestream. But here’s the catch: the video game is of himself, where he controls whether to cry, walk, try to open the door, play piano, etc. And Burnham doesn’t miss out on hitting the “Cry” button more times than we would expect.
The first half of Inside is rather cheerful as compared to the second. It is filled with social satire songs, “White Woman’s Instagram”, “Face-Timing with Mum”, and “How the World Works” to name a few. “How the World Works” is also hard-hitting because of the lyrics sung by Socko (the singing sock puppet on his hand). Socko spits facts like “FBI killed Martin Luther King” and “Don’t you know the world is built with blood, genocide and exploitation?”, and Burnham seems to agree and laugh with him, until – and this is a big “until” – it becomes personal. When he asks Socko what he can do to help, his White Saviour Complex is brought to attention by Socko. “Why do rich white men see everything about themselves and their self-actualisation?” Socko asks. “This isn’t about you.” To which, Burnham’s immediate reaction is “watch your mouth, remember who’s on whose hand.” And that’s where the social commentary adds another layer: a commentary upon a commentary where seemingly “woke” people’s platforms are also owned, designed and controlled by Rich White Men.
But this article would be nothing without mentioning Bo’s visibly deteriorating mental health throughout the film. And it is in that sense that I realise that there is a linear structure somewhere deep inside the utter chaos we are witnessing. And it is Bo’s mental health getting worse with each passing month.
As the film progresses (and as we move deeper into the pandemic) the lighter tone gradually decreases and it’s a trip downhill for Bo. Not only does he contemplate suicide, but he also mentions that the very film we are watching is the reason he is alive today. Now he is not a man entertaining us, but he is a broken, vulnerable and naked man trying to entertain us while keeping himself alive.
Like Bo himself, I don’t know how to end this article. So I’m going to end it with a question, Bo-style. The question is not “Will you watch Inside?” The question is, “Will you help Bo Burnham in his fight against racism by watching Inside?”
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.