Nobody enjoyed eighth grade. Middle school is an awkward time when the combination of hormones and social stresses make you overwhelmingly uncomfortable in your own skin. It’s an unpleasant but unavoidable gauntlet none of us escape wholly unscathed.
“Eighth Grade” is a smart, funny and heartfelt film that looks at this terrifying transitional period through the eyes of Kayla Day, a shy, insecure eighth grader played by Elsie Fisher (the voice of Agnes in “Despicable Me”). In her spare time, Kayla makes advice videos on YouTube where she tells other girls how to put themselves out there and be more confident. Online, she’s the person she aspires to be — if only she could take her own advice.
Comedian Bo Burnham, who wrote and directed the film, has a keen eye for what it’s like to grow up on social media. Burnham himself was an early YouTube star. His satirical, self-deprecating songs launched him into the spotlight at age 16. He landed his first Comedy Central standup special by 18.
As he’s grown as a performer, Burnham has taken an increasingly critical look at the experience of growing up in a world where you are constantly observing and being observed by others. “Eighth Grade” drills down into how that phenomenon has altered our behavior. A montage in which Kayla wakes up early to put on makeup and do her hair just so she can get back in bed to take a good-morning selfie is a tragic expression of how young people — especially young women — are affected by social media.
The film is full of such well-observed moments, which are presented without comment. The teen actors stare into their phones endlessly — in class, at lunch, in the car, at the dinner table. A scene where Kayla and her classmates stare blankly into phones while hiding under their desks during an active-shooter drill is a discomforting example of how numb this generation of kids has become to that horrific reality.
In an interview with Terry Gross, Burnham explained his decision to tell the film’s story from the perspective of a girl as a way of avoiding memoir or nostalgia. He wanted the story to feel current and relevant in a way that drawing from his own experiences as an adolescent wouldn’t allow it to be.
Through Kayla, he is able to capture the universal, timeless agonies and intermittent joys of being a young teenager on the cusp of high school. A scene in which Kayla attends a pool party plays out like a visit to an alien planet as she, exposed and visibly uncomfortable in her bathing suit, struggles to find a place amid the chaos.
Fisher gives a fantastic performance as Kayla. The character feels authentic in a way that few films allow young women to be — her skin is blotchy, her clothes are unstylish, her dialogue is stilted and naturalistic. She squirms with uncertainty and insecurity as she walks through scenes with a slouch.
Burnham’s decision to cast relatively unknown actors was a good choice. It allows Fisher to shine without being upstaged by a bigger actor in a supporting role.
Josh Hamilton (“Frances Ha”) plays Kayla’s father Mark, a single dad who is every bit as embarrassing as all parents are to teenagers. The character is a loving reminder of how sometimes all parents can do is be present and compassionate as they weather the storm of adolescence.
For his first time directing a feature-length film — he’s directed a number of standup specials, including Chris Rock’s recent Netflix hour “Tangerine” — Burnham demonstrates great skill and confidence as a storyteller. “Eighth Grade” is a self-assured and economical film that avoids melodrama and keeps the stakes relatively low. The result is a small but poignant story that perfectly captures the highs, lows and potential dangers of life as a young teen coming of age in 2018.