“The topic of today’s video is being yourself,” stammers 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in one of the self-recorded advice videos she periodically posts to her YouTube channel. It’s hard to imagine any topic on which this insecure, awkward girl, with her apologetically slumped shoulders and digitally airbrushed-out acne, would make for a less convincing expert. As her generally unhappy middle school experience enters its final excruciating week, Kayla contends with some standardly bad teenage experiences: being awarded the superlative of “Most Quiet” at an end-of-year ceremony, being invisible to the “Best Eyes”–winning classmate she’s crushed out on (Luke Prael), and being pestered by her loving, hovering single dad (Josh Hamilton) to—get this—stop looking at Instagram over dinner and talk to him.
Kayla will later deal with scarier and dodgier situations than these run-of-the-mill indignities, even if Eighth Grade mercifully never goes as dark as first-time writer-director Bo Burnham sometimes seem to hint it will. The funny, heartfelt, and utterly original Eighth Grade is a movie about middle school starring real middle school–age kids, to which one might enjoyably take actual middle schoolers—so long as they and their parents are willing to tolerate a reasonably high degree of shared comic embarrassment. Whether or not you currently have a preteen child, every adult has been one, and it’s almost neurologically impossible not to avert your face in burning-cheeked sympathy when Kayla, face to face with the popular girls she both longs to impress and fears like the ego-destroying monsters they can be, can only summon the emptiest sycophantic banter. “By the way, I like your shirt a lot. It’s, like, so cool.” Long pause. “I have a … shirt … too.”
Eighth Grade alternates such moments of hyperreal cringe comedy with more stylized scenes filmed from Kayla’s point of view. A visit to her boorish beloved’s Instagram feed sends her down a social media spiral, captured in a montage of Snapchat selfies and BuzzFeed quizzes set to Enya’s hypnotic New Age classic “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away).” These dreamlike passages often end abruptly with the forced removal of headphones from Kayla’s ears, emphasizing the break between banal everyday reality and the curated fantasy space of social media. But Eighth Grade never strains for topicality or hand-wrings at the state of Today’s Youth: There’s a lightness and simplicity to this affectionate portrait of a girl dipping a first toe in the rushing waters of 21st-century teenagerdom.
Kayla’s omnipresent iPhone can be a vector of social anxiety and low self-esteem, but, like the YouTube videos she posts into the apparent void, it can also serve as a medium of connection. After she’s paired with a high school student (Emily Robinson) for a daylong tour of the school she’s about to move on to, the two become unexpectedly friendly, and a dazzled Kayla gets a glimpse of the only good thing about her current phase of life: Eventually, it ends. “Now I can’t wait to grow up,” she confides to her trusty webcam. But her newfound faith in the future is tested, heartstoppingly, by an encounter with an older boy (Daniel Zolghadri) who tries to pressure Kayla into a too-much-too-soon round of truth or dare.
The 27-year-old Burnham, making a graceful and assured debut as a writer-director, already has a devoted following as a stand-up comedian. In fact, his career began at age 16 in exactly the place we first see Kayla: YouTube. In his most recent Netflix special Make Happy, Burnham uses his considerable versatility—he can sing, dance, take to the keyboard to pound out his own satirical pop ballads, and generally shift genres and tones on a dime—to mount a protest against stand-up comedy as a form. By the end of the hour, he’s exposed both the raw desire for approval that drives him to perform in the first place and the need for mass catharsis via entertainment that fills seats at comedy shows. At first glance, this kind of confrontational virtuosity would seem at odds with the emotional directness of Eighth Grade, which, though it showcases many acts of intentional and unintentional cruelty, is a deeply kind movie, curious and nonjudgmental even about the characters who in most coming-of-age films would be hissable villains. But some of the same themes that animate Burnham’s stand-up—his willingness to look at aspects of the modern experience that tend to be omitted from the stories we tell, his glee at subverting audience expectations—are also at play in his first feature.
Impressive as Burnham’s achievement is, Eighth Grade could never hit the heights it does without the right actress in the demanding lead role. Elsie Fisher—who was only 14 when the movie premiered at Sundance, with experience as a child voice actor in the Despicable Me franchise—delivers her “like”-heavy dialogue with such naturalism you might think the lines are improvised. But Burnham has said in interviews that the film is more scripted than it appears, and the story beats that it hits in its brisk 90-minute runtime are too precisely timed to be the result of adolescent ad-libbing. Though they get less screen time than Fisher, the rest of the teen actors, especially Jake Ryan as an earnest, geeky boy who takes a shine to Kayla at a pool party, are uniformly wonderful. And as Kayla’s devoted but confounded father, who’s alternately commanded to talk more, smile less, “stop looking weird and sad,” and just shut up and drive her to the mall, Josh Hamilton gives an exemplary performance, funny and sensitive and quietly soul-baring. A late scene by a campfire, in which Kayla’s dad struggles to articulate what watching her grow from babyhood has meant to him, will do a thorough job of flushing out any eye irritants that might have been bothering you on the way into the theater.
Eighth Grade doesn’t overstay its welcome or beg for the viewer’s approval. As Kayla records her last advice video of the school year, mortifying catchphrase and all, you’re sad to see her go, glad for the gains in self-confidence she’s made, and curious to know what she’ll do next. The same is true of Bo Burnham, who, unlike his tentative protagonist, arrives on the big screen already fully grown.