When you’re 13 years old, reality can feel mutable and devouring. A week of boredom and discomfiture can dilate into a dreary eternity. A passing moment of awkwardness can mushroom into a humiliating cataclysm. The mélange of roaring hormones and bewildering social dynamics that characterizes the transition from childhood to adolescence turns every day into an ordeal, and every misstep into a crisis. When it comes to representing this distinctive life stage in narrative cinema, there’s an understandable temptation to veer into grotesque miserabilism, by amplifying either the salacious (Thirteen) or the cartoonish (Welcome to the Dollhouse). To be 13 years old is to exist in a perpetual state of semi-controlled catastrophe, and it therefore makes sense for films about that age to reflect a certain warped sensibility.
The quiet miracle of writer-director Bo Burnham’s splendid debut feature, Eighth Grade, is that it so effortlessly resists straying into such heightened territory. In telling the story of a week in the life of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) – a smart and spirited girl, but also one who is shy, gawky, and friend-deficient – the filmmaker achieves an estimable balance between realism and exaggeration. None of the tribulations that befall Kayla in Eighth Grade are truly calamitous, and nothing that occurs is presented through an excessively distorted lens. She is, ultimately, a middle-class white kid with a good head on her shoulders, and the travails that she encounters during the film’s seven-day span are the relatively mundane experiences of millions of young teens: a pool party, a high-school tour, a trip to the mall, and her eighth-grade graduation. (In what is easily the most unsettling sequence, the film strays right up to the edge of an alarming sexual incident, but then, refreshingly, backs away from it when Kayla vehemently asserts herself.)
Burnham eschews both the sluggish banalities of excessive naturalism and the rosy gloss of quirky indie unreality, finding a middle way that is both grounded and emotionally evocative. Greg Berlanti’s recent gay romantic fable, Love, Simon, makes for a striking contrast. Although well-intentioned, that film blessed its 18-year-old lovelorn hero with such a charmed life that it ultimately turned Simon’s closet-related crisis into little more than exurban fairy tale straight from the CW. Eighth Grade, on the other hand, represents an authentic delve into the anguished existence of a 13-year-old girl – a precocious kid whose self-awareness about her own shortcomings makes her interminable awkwardness and loneliness all the more agonizing.
Less a traditional three-act story than a cavalcade of mortifying incidents, Burnham’s feature chronicles Kayla’s oddly eventful final week of junior high, which can’t end soon enough for her. (In the name of amplifying the absurdity, the filmmaker sacrifices a bit of realism by incorporating events – such as a sex-education presentation and an active-shooter drill – that seem unlikely to have been scheduled for the last week of school.) The Class of 2017 marks the end of its middle-school tenure by opening the shoebox time capsules they assembled at the beginning of sixth grade. Rummaging through the optimistic, faintly pathetic artifacts of her two-and-a-half-years-ago self inspires more than the usual navel-gazing from Kayla. This is about as close as Eighth Grade gets to a character arc: Kayla grappling (to mixed results) with her disillusionment over the gulf between her erstwhile hopes for the future and her dispiriting present.
From a big-picture standpoint, Kayla doesn’t have much to be concerned about. She doesn’t appear to have problems with academics. (Although, to be honest, what 13-year-old is all that fixated on grades?) She plays the cymbals in the school orchestra, geeks out over pop culture, and has an earnest, incurably dorky dad (Josh Hamilton) who thinks she hung the moon. Aside from acne and chunky hips, her biggest concerns are internal. Kayla struggles with the fundamentals of junior-high social life, stammering and grinning inanely through pained conversations with more popular classmates in a vain attempt to seem naturally cool. She isn’t so much friendless as peripheral in her peers’ eyes, the shy girl whose most unforgivable sin is being unmemorable. Her week begins inauspiciously when her fellow eighth graders name her Most Quiet, a humiliating superlative that feels like a repudiation of all the energy she’s poured into “putting herself out there,” as it were.
Certainly, Kayla evinces more enthusiasm for mental and emotional self-improvement than a typical girl her age. Her bathroom mirror is hung with affirming Post-Its – Got Get ‘Em! Own Who You Are! Make Today a Better Day! – and she sketches out her personal-development plans in a spiral notebook with columns labeled “Thing I Want” and “How to Get There.” Most poignantly, she records and posts brief self-help videos to a YouTube channel, “Kayla’s Korner,” authoritatively explaining to her mostly phantom subscribers how to acquire more confidence and be their best selves. (Her sprightly, puzzling signoff is “Gucci!”) Critically, Burnham doesn’t present this discontinuity between the girl’s internal/online life and her face-to-face interactions as bitterly ironic, but rather heartening in a faintly melancholy way. Kayla knows how to get where she wants to be; she just has difficulty sticking the landing.
Eighth Grade is the kind of coming-of-age film that would rather conjure the harrowing experience of a pool party-triggered panic attack than diagnose its young heroine’s (probable) anxiety disorder. In other words, Burnham is foremost concerned with creating the subjective reality of being a 13-year-old girl, and thereby fostering a cross-generational and cross-gender appreciation for how much being a 13-year-old girl absolutely sucks. Whether or not an individual viewer’s own memories of junior high match Kayla’s experiences, it makes for a stunning feat of artistic empathy. No film in recent memory has so precisely captured the trifecta of constant anxiousness, horniness, and embarrassment that overwhelms the newly teenaged.
Much of this is attributable to Fisher, who is in virtually every scene of the feature. She invests Kayla with a rare, radiant genuineness that almost certainly owes something to her being an actual 13-year-old girl (or thereabouts) when Eighth Grade was filmed. Indeed, Burnham has been unfailingly open and generous in ascribing the success of the film to Fisher’s performance. To say that the feature rests primarily on the young actress’ shoulders, however, does a disservice to Burnham’s wonderful direction and the superlative efforts of the rest of the crew. Jennifer Lilly’s wry and sublimely precise editing deserves particular accolades, as does the work of the music and sound departments, who delicately suggest the aural stylings of Gen X high-school-cinema landmarks like Fast Time At Ridgemont High, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Breakfast Club without resorting to outright homage. (Double kudos to the filmmakers for finding an authentically inspired way to use Enya’s much-satirized 1988 single “Orinoco Flow” some 30 years later: as the score to a hypnotic montage of Kayla’s Instagram scrolling.)
In a subgenre that too often indulges in one-note, self-satisfied gestures, the novelty of Burnham’s storytelling lies in how he refuses to pigeonhole individual scenes and plot swerves. The pool party – to which Kayla received a parent-enforced pity invite – is a centerpiece of body-shame and social blunders, but it ends on a slightly positive note, with Kayla besting her anxiety by singing a karaoke solo. Her vocal skill and the response of the other partygoers is rendered moot, as Burnham ingeniously muffles the sound, focusing on Fisher’s beaming face as her self-assurance behind the microphone swells.
Other examples abound. The potential landmines inherent in a high-school visitation day are defused when Kayla is paired with an ebullient, kind-hearted senior, Olivia (Emily Robinson), who reassures the younger girl of both her awesomeness and the fleeting significance of eighth grade. Then the sweet turns sour: Kayla’s father embarrasses her in front the older teenagers by anxiously shadowing her at the mall. What’s more, one of Olivia’s male friends turns out to be something of a predatory creep. During graduation, Kayla unloads on a mean-girl classmate with the sort of cathartic monologue that would crown a different kind of middle-school drama, but the scene subverts expectations by abruptly concluding in vague confusion. Late in the film, a nerdy boy invites Kayla to his house, where he humblebrags about his archery certificate and lays out chicken nuggets for a dinner date. Burnham could have used this as a springboard to a geek-love happy ending; instead he leaves the friendship ambiguous, keeping it grounded in shared chuckles over stiffly delivered Rick and Morty quotations.
The 27-year-old Burnham first made a name for himself with lo-fi performances of original satirical songs on YouTube, before breaking into a successful stand-up career. Perhaps it’s that distinctly 21st-century rise to viral fame that allows the filmmaker to take an admirably honest, matter-of-fact stance toward technology and its messy intersections with tween/teen life. Social media is an omnipresent reality in Eighth Grade, and Burnham isn’t afraid to illustrate the anxiety, despair, and phoniness that the online world engenders. However, the director isn’t interested in anything so tired as kvetching about the Kids Today. In the uncanny, occasionally distressing new reality that Kayla inhabits, the use of social media simply highlights the extent to which all of adolescence is performative, regardless of whether it’s vlogged. (In a sequence that is half charming and half surreal, Kayla carefully follows an online makeup tutorial before gingerly getting back into bed for a zit-free, Instagram-ready “just woke up” selfie.) For a teen drama where every kid is conspicuously glued to their smartphone, there’s a refreshing absence of Luddite hand-wringing in Eighth Grade. In Burnham’s intimate, insightful vision of adolescent angst, Snapchat is just another signpost on the twisting, nausea-inducing road to adulthood.