‘Eighth Grade’ brilliantly captures the agony and ecstasy of adolescence
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What was your favorite age as a kid?
- A. 6
- B. 10
- C. 13
- D. 16
My guess is very few of you gravitated toward “C.”
Thirteen years old means junior high school — seventh or eighth grade.
Thirteen years old means awkward growth spurts, changes to your body and voice, awakening sexuality, social awkwardness, maybe braces — and look, here comes the acne!
Writer-director Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” is a sweet and intelligent and sometimes absolutely heartbreaking slice of modern-day, eighth-grade life, which, in some ways (hello social media), is radically different from the eighth-grade experience of 1998 or 1978 or 1958, but in many ways is absolutely relatable to audiences of any age or gender.
Burnham, who is just 27, has delivered something of a minor cinematic miracle: a portrait of a 13-year-old girl, which never feels contrived, never comes across as an adult male’s speculative stab at what it must be like to be a teen girl in today’s world.
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Elsie Fisher gives an authentic and utterly natural performance as Kayla, who is days away from her eighth-grade graduation. Kayla is an only child living with her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who has been on his own since Kayla’s mother took off when Kayla was just a baby.
In YouTube videos in which she offers advice to her peers, Kayla comes across as a bright, engaging, effervescent girl.
But a YouTube Channel isn’t real life. In real life, Kayla gets somewhere between zero and seven views per video. In real life, when Kayla closes the laptop and trundles through the school hallways, she’s one of those painfully shy, nearly invisible kids. She has gone through three years of middle school without ever finding a clique or a club or a group of her own, without making any close friends. And though she harbors a massive crush on a good-looking but comically dim boy at school, she has barely said a complete sentence to him, let alone established a connection.
We cringe for Kayla when she attends a birthday party for the uber-popular and quite mean Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), who invited Kayla only because her mother made her do it. (Kennedy’s mom seems to have a bit of a crush on Kayla’s dad.) Kayla is uncomfortable in her swimsuit, she’s embarrassed at Kennedy’s “What even IS this?” reaction to her present, and she finally holes up alone, next to the room where the kids are singing karaoke, and calls her father and pleads for him to come get her.
But as is the case with many a scene in “Eighth Grade,” there’s a well-executed twist to the scenario. Kayla suffers setbacks nearly every day, but that just makes us root harder for her, and to cheer (and perhaps tear up) at her breakthrough moments.
I also loved the look and simple but effective style of this film. In a montage set to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” believe it or not, writer-director Burnham expertly captures the teenage obsession with social media, from texting and Instagram filters to BuzzFeed quizzes and kids obsessively posting video “stories” about themselves that tell no story at all (the process just makes it seem like they’re mini-celebrities, living the celebrity life for an audience of maybe 22 viewers, tops).
Josh Hamilton is terrific in a low-key but effective performance as Kayla’s dad, who’s dorky and painfully unfunny and so earnest that an exasperated Kayla tells him to “stop looking weird” when all he’s doing is driving her to the mall. Emily Robinson is a bundle of likable energy as Olivia, a high school senior Kayla “shadows” for a day. When Olivia treats Kayla with kindness and even makes her feel cool, you want to find Olivia’s parents and tell them whatever they did, it was a hell of a job.
There are cringe-inducing moments in “Eighth Grade,” most of them dealing with sexual issues. Kayla lies about having naked pictures of herself to impress her crush. A high school senior tries to pressure her into removing her shirt. There’s a banana incident.
Like Kayla’s father, you want to wrap your arms around this kid and tell her she’s amazing and special, and she’s got a bright future just waiting for her. Of course, you can tell your child that every day, but at a certain age she’s not going to want to hear ANYTHING you have to say, and you just have to wait for her to emerge on the other side.
“Eighth Grade” gets that just right. “Eighth Grade” gets about everything just right.
A24 presents a film written and directed by Bo Burnham. Rated R (for language and some sexual material). Running time: 93 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.