4 stars (out of 4)
A 27-year-old male comedy writer-director named Bo Burnham somehow unearthed your tattered junior high journal. He pored over every page. Then he turned the universally awkward and anxiety-ridden experience into the flat-out wonderful coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade. I know. Those two words alone are powerful enough to make a self-assured grown adult quake in fear.
Eighth Grade is the bee’s knees, one of the very best movies of the year, and I won’t change my mind no matter how many fancy prestige period dramas pass through the theaters in the fall. Some smart industry folks are already dubbing it “Baby Bird,” in a wink-wink reference to Greta Gerwig’s own superb coming-of-age tale from 2017. My nickname for it: “Triumphant Sundance indie that made me turn into a sobbing pile of mush.”
Future breakout star Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, a lovable 13-year-old suburbanite who, to quote your secret favorite Britney Spears ballad, is not a girl, not yet a woman. The moment we meet her, she is staring straight into her computer and delivering a sincere, life-affirming speech about “being yourself” that she will upload to her YouTube channel. She has a lot on her mind, and she ends all her social media video monologues by stammering out the Gen Z catchphrase “OK, Gucci!”
Kayla isn’t a social media starlet. Her YouTube channel gets only a few clicks, and her biggest fan is her caring, if slightly overbearing, single dad (Josh Hamilton, the ‘90s star long overdue for a career renaissance). In fact, Kayla was voted “Most Quiet” by her classmates. A natural-born introvert, she’s more at ease staring at her shoes than talking to the popular cute dude. The Internet provides a convenient outlet to express her thoughts and stay positive through this turbulent period. “I’m nervous, like I’m waiting in life for a roller coaster,” she explains. “I never get the feeling of after you ride the roller coaster.”
Mercifully, Kayla has just one week left in middle school, and it can’t end soon enough. Not that she’s been bullied in the cafeteria about her appearance or shy personality. She’s just that girl that floated through the system without fanfare. Though perfectly friendly, she doesn’t surround herself with a gossipy group of tight-knit besties. She prefers to spend her nights losing herself in a scroll of her peers’ Instagram, SnapChat and Twitter feeds. This is the part where Gen Xers and certain Millennials must take a mental time-out and thank the stars they didn’t have to deal with this curated social media façade back in the day.
Beyond her self-help affirmations, Kayla is savvy enough to know that if things are going to change, she must venture outside her comfort zone and strap on a smile. In one scene that will seem like a horror movie to anyone who’s lived it, Kayla’s dad persuades her to go to a cool kid’s pool party. She pushes through her inner-anxiety attack to reveal her bathing suit and go swimming. She attempts to flirt. She does a round of karaoke, yet another example of teens doing dumb and blissfully carefree things to impress each other.
Her social efforts are rewarded later when she befriends a girl (Emily Robinson) who’s, like, already in high school. She offers to take Kayla under her wing. Fisher, a charming, goofy natural, has this part so nailed down that she does the excitable, giggly pace around her bedroom while talking this cool older girl on the phone. Details matter. An invite to hang at the mall is the equivalent of finding a winning lotto ticket. But even this delicate relationship leads to an unsettling scene with an older boy. Boys, of course, have their own troubled issues. Typical, sigh.
We’ve all been conditioned to the typical teen movie tropes, and I’m proud to say that Eighth Grade doesn’t adhere to any of them. Kayla, a dirty blonde who’s prone to blotchy acne on her face and types on her iPhone with chipped glittery nail polish, does not get an Ally Sheedy or Rachael Leigh Cook-like makeover. There’s no slow clap for her on the last day of school or at a commencement when she stands up and makes a big speech and earns the respect and admiration of her peers. (She doesn’t lash out at them in a Carrie rage, either.) None of Kayla’s YouTube therapy sessions go viral. And she does not get The Boy. Did you? Indeed, Burnham’s marvelously nuanced pic is more comparable to a documentary in that it plays true to life. Every moment drips with aching — and, at times, heart-swelling —authenticity. The heart-swelling is where the ugly cry kicks in.
Kayla isn’t a superheroine. She simply tries . . . the best she knows how. And that’s really all you can ask for in a girl during the godawful modern teen experience. Thank you, Bo Burnham, for keeping it real. Because unlike eighth grade itself, Eighth Grade deserves to be continually relived.
Eighth Grade opens in select theaters on Friday, July 13