Eighth Grade is a near-perfect representation of awkward early adolescence

By Leigh Monson
   There is no shortage of films focused on exploring the adolescent mind. Whether it's in something as frivolous as Spider-Man or as insightful as American Graffiti, teenagers are a prime ground for looking at base human impulses and growth into or beyond those raw materials of personality. However, probably because they lack the disposable income to be the prime targets of cinematic exploits, not a lot of films are specifically geared toward the biting reality of the middle school experience. Eighth Grade marks the directorial debut of comedian Bo Burnham, and his incisive take on what it means to be thirteen is darkly hilarious as it is brutally honest.
   Eighth Grade follows a week in the life of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a girl on the cusp of graduating middle school without a friend to her name. She makes YouTube advice videos that nobody watches, espousing the virtues of being oneself and having the bravery to put oneself out there while being entirely incapable of following her own advice. Over this final week, Kayla resolves to make an effort to develop a social life, get a boyfriend, deal with her try-hard dad (Josh Hamilton), and finally become the person she wants to be, her shyness be damned.
   What Burnham's writing and direction perfectly capture is this duality of objective reality contrasted with how Kayla experiences it. We are treated to a multitude of shots of painful adolescent awkwardness – pimpled faces, gangly limbs, braceface smiles, stuttering and circular dialogue – but while these indicate to the audience that the objective stakes of Kayla's story are low, Kayla herself is clearly petrified. The camera will often zoom in to focus solely on her face or on the objects of her anxieties, and the soundtrack will become cacophonous so that you're right there with Kayla as she struggles to grasp being nice and quiet in a social structure that rewards boisterousness and antipathy.
   It's quite frankly amazing, then, that Burnham manages to walk a paper-thin line of portraying his self-conscious protagonist as funny without punishing her for her embarrassment. Elsie Fisher gives an astonishingly naturalistic performance, capturing all the "um"s and "uh"s of casual childhood vocabulary-grasping without losing the beating heart of empathy this film runs on. You may laugh when Kayla stumbles over her words or when the kids she wants to impress are equally dorky (if not more so), but the joke isn't cruel, instead reflecting an understanding that each of us was once this strange. And that levity has the potential to turn on a dime, resulting in some of the most intense scenes I've ever seen an audience awkwardly laugh through as the severity of the situation dawns on them too late.
   Eighth Grade suffers only slightly from being a debut film, with some supporting characters that feel less human than plot devices for Kayla's self-actualization, but given that Kayla herself is as trapped in her own head as any thirteen-year-old, that's just as much a feature as it is a bug, a symptom of her empathetic centers not being quite fully developed. Bo Burnham has such a confident and unflinching auteur vision for his film, with an understanding of the youngest of adulthoods that is able to extract the comedy of distance and the horrors of experience simultaneously. This makes me extremely excited for whatever Burnham has next, because on his first effort he made one of the best films of the year.

4.5/5 stars
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.