Ever wonder what it must be like to come-of-age in an era of information overload, motivational YouTube videos and school-shooter drills? With “Eighth Grade,” a funny, blistering look at life in junior high, director Bo Burnham gives you a peak, morphing from creator/star of MTV’s “Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous” into the modern day John Hughes.
Elsie Fisher is Kayla, a newly minted teen struggling through the last week of grade eight. “The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy,” the thirteen-year-old says in one of the many inspirational YouTube videos she posts to the web in a search for friends, validation and most of all, likes. Trouble is, she’s no JennaMarbles. Despite being glued to her phone and coining a perky catchphrase—“Gucci!”—she has no social media presence to speak of. “The topic of today’s video is putting yourself out there,” she says, “but where is there?”
It’s not much better in IRL. Ignored by schoolmates, she’s only invited to the popular girl Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) pool party because her mom (Missy Yager) has a crush on Kayla’s father Mark (Josh Hamilton). Speaking of her long-suffering dad, he spends his time trying to make contact only to be met with monosyllabic grunts as he desperately tries to distract her from her ever-present phone.
Ultimately “Eighth Grade” is all about Kayla’s attempts at feeling connected and finding a place in a world where screens separate people. “I’m nervous, like I’m waiting in line for a roller coaster,” she says. “I never get the feeling of after you ride the roller coaster.”
“Eighth Grade” is an unvarnished, pimples and all, look at adolescence and the anxiety that comes with it. Kayla may not always be able to exactly articulate the way she’s feeling but the movie has no such problem. It’s a study in her innocence and awkwardness that uses carefully selected moments to highlight Kayla’s mindset.
A pool party scene, where she has to wear a bathing suit in front of the cool kids from school, wordlessly displays her insecurities while her excited, sweet reaction to being invited to hang at the mall by an older friend is genuine and heartfelt. Later, a game of Truth Or Dare contains as much suspense as any action sequence we’ve seen this year.
Those scenes, combined with the discomfort Elsie Fisher brings to Kayla’s day-to-day, and the very dramatic music that underscores the highs and lows of her life and you have a slice-of-life portrait that feels completely authentic.