Movies about adolescence tend to depict their worlds through the distancing prism of exaggeration, nostalgia, fantasy, or uptight moralizing. Being a teenager sucks for the vast majority of us, so it makes sense that audiences prefer entertainment that shows us how we'd like to remember the experience more than how it actually was. As a result, there aren't many movies that get it honestly and truly right.
"Eighth Grade" is one of the special ones. It doesn't provide a rosy-eyed view of youth culture -- at times it's as anxiety-inducing as the most suspenseful thriller. It's sometimes hilarious, but also wise, warm, and endlessly empathetic.
The film follows a shy 13-year-old named Kayla Day (the phenomenal Elsie Fisher), through the last week of eighth grade as she begins preparing for the big, terrifying world of high school. Kayla isn't part of the popular crowd; she's not part of any crowd really. She's hopelessly self-conscious and perpetually tongue-tied around her classmates, who are mostly content to ignore her completely. But she desperately wants to be seen as cool and earn the friendship of the popular girls in her grade or the attention of her crush object, Aiden (Luke Prael).
At school Kayla seems a hopeless case, but at home it's a different story entirely. There, she records self-help videos for her YouTube channel, cheerfully dispensing life advice on subjects such as "gaining confidence" and "being yourself." As we observe her awkward interactions with her peers, it seems the guidance she's providing is more for herself than anyone else (a fact that her nonexistent viewership seems to confirm). After all, advice can be hard to take, even when it's coming from your own head.
The directorial debut of 27-year-old musician and comedian Bo Burnham, "Eighth Grade" understands that middle school is a nightmare for most everyone, though we all miraculously fumbled through it.
Burnham got his start making his own videos on YouTube in the site's early days, and he has a keen understanding of the ways people interact with the internet. He's intrigued by the role of social media and the way its existence can heighten and distort teenage insecurities. At the same time, he doesn't fall into the trap of demonizing the internet completely.
There are certainly good things about the web, including helping a young girl figure out who she truly is. Burnham doesn't see Kayla's falsely idealized online persona as negative, but aspirational: it's about trying on the version of herself that she one day hopes to be.
At the heart of the film is Kayla's prickly relationship with her single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton). The two actors share a believable father-daughter chemistry: he makes every attempt to ensure his daughter knows she's loved and supported; she's embarrassed and enraged by every word that comes out of his mouth. The film never depicts Mark as incompetent -- quite the contrary -- but recognizes he's facing a nearly impossible battle. An underrated character actor, Hamilton is wonderful in the role, and he's rewarded with a late-in-the-film speech that ranks alongside Michael Stuhlbarg's justly heralded monologue at the end of "Call Me By Your Name" in terms of inspirational parenting.
Even though I (thankfully) never had to endure being on social media as a teen, I found myself wincing in painful recognition at many of the situations Kayla finds herself in (the depiction of her experience at a popular girl's pool party practically gave me PTSD). Burnham's viewpoint isn't mean-spirited, and he never leans into the discomfort. I also can't recall another film as adept at capturing the rhythm of teenage speech, the awkward, halting patterns that emerge when you're searching for the right words to express yourself and too often coming up short.
As a filmmaker, Burnham has clear affection for his characters, and proves himself remarkably adept at putting himself into the mind of a 13-year-old girl. He's aided by Elsie Fisher's pitch-perfect performance. Whether she's stumbling through conversations with her classmates, grumpily slouching through dinner with her father, or confidently advising her imaginary viewers to be their best selves, her every action is astonishingly assured, even as Kayla is anything but. She's so sympathetic and loveable that we can't help but root for her and hope that life will treat her kindly.
A sweet, compassionate, and clear-eyed depiction of adolescence, "Eighth Grade" has inexplicably been rated R for its language and a hint of sex talk. But parents shouldn't avoid letting their kids see it. While it might make for some awkward conversation afterward (but really, what conversation with a teen isn't at least slightly uncomfortable?), I can't help thinking young people are the audience who might just benefit from it the most.