Middle School Sucks: "Eighth Grade" a lived-in, very funny, painfully honest zits-and-all slice-of-life

Eighth Grade (2018)
93 min., rated R.

One of the more successful YouTubers to make a valuable name for himself, 27-year-old multi-hyphenate (singer, songwriter, musician, stand-up comedian) Bo Burnham makes a most rewarding writing-directing debut with “Eighth Grade.” Surviving middle school was rough enough, and one can’t even imagine reliving it now in 2018 (not to date oneself), but the universal ways in which Burnham explores that agonizing stage in one socially awkward teenage girl’s life—self-doubt and insecurities, social anxiety and the approval one seeks from the popular crowd, all magnified by social media eternally at one’s fingertips—are painfully honest, bittersweet, and often quite funny. What will seem low-stakes to an adult viewer is rendered as a sensitive, life-or-death snapshot of the here and now in “Eighth Grade,” and it is a special, momentous achievement for all to see.

In front of the camera when making a series of YouTube topic videos, 13-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) encourages others to be themselves and comfortable in one’s own skin, even if she doesn’t know what that fully means. She doesn’t consider herself to be shy or quiet, but on the last week of eighth grade before summer vacation, Class Superlatives are announced at an assembly and beg to differ, honoring Kayla as “Most Quiet.” Encouraged by loving father Mark (Josh Hamilton) to put herself out there, Kayla reluctantly agrees to a birthday pool party invite by the mother of popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), who clearly wants nothing to do with her. At the party, she tries inserting herself into a group photo and loses all ability to speak when running into class crush Aiden (Luke Prael). Things begin to look up a little when Kayla shadows high school junior Olivia (Emily Robinson), who immediately finds Kayla to be adorable and cool, and realizes high school will undoubtedly get better. Suffering through a week that comes with ups and downs, Kayla will persevere before entering a new chapter in her life.

A lived-in, zits-and-all slice-of-slice that amounts to small victories and a traceable, fully earned arc for Kayla, “Eighth Grade” keenly observes its wallflower protagonist clamber through social situations until she finds her voice and confidence. A number of times—when Kayla attends the pool party and feels invisible, when she gets invited to the mall by her high school shadowee, when she plays truth or dare with a high school boy in the backseat of his car, when she finally talks to her crush during a school shooting drill, and when she looks up tips on YouTube on how to practice oral sex on a banana—the film could easily go in hackneyed or severely dramatic directions but surprises each time without a false note. Writer-director Bo Burnham never turns his film into an “After School Special,” his insight and chops as a new filmmaker making one believe he could have been a thirteen-year-old girl in a previous life. Set today, with social media clearly filling the lives of everyone, the film could have been a judgmental commentary of technological consumption, but Burnham gracefully uses it as another nuance to his story of awkward adolescence, demonstrating how communication on social media does not always translate to face-to-face communication. Cued to Enya’s “Sail Away,” Burnham’s camera lingers on Kayla's face, brightened by the glow of her phone as she scrolls away on Instagram in bed.

Aside from voice credits in the “Despicable Me” films as Agnes, Elsie Fisher turns in a remarkable breakthrough performance of vulnerability and all-around relatability as Kayla Day. As if she is never acting in front of a camera, she is a true discovery, tackling vanity-free naturalism at such a young age with a face of acne, and makes Kayla an endearing, sympathetic protagonist worth rooting for every step of the way. Also, in a refreshing change of pace, Kayla is never as perfectly articulate as most movie characters tend to be (here’s looking at you, Juno MacGuff) and authentically litters her speech with “ums,” “likes,” and “whatevers.” Character actor Josh Hamilton is immensely sweet and touching in an understated way as Kayla’s single father Mark through the ways he tries patiently communicating with his always-preoccupied daughter. When Kayla decides to burn her shoebox time capsule she made in sixth grade with her dad by her side, it is a beautifully cathartic and warmly felt breakthrough for their relationship.

“Eighth Grade” is not a documentary, but it is so accurate and identifiable that it might as well be one, as viewers will cringe and wish he or she were watching through a pin hole in a shoebox. Writer-director Burnham knows how to wring hold-your-breath discomfort out of situations, and he is kind to Kayla but still lets her make mistakes and feel embarrassment, or else, how would she grow and learn anything? Where the viewer finds Kayla by the end of the film, she is a little wiser and a little more outgoing, and now with more experience under her belt, she’s actually able to give real advice all eighth graders today should listen to, like “You can’t be brave without being scared.” The viewer loves spending time with Kayla and wants to break down the barrier of the screen to tell her that middle school is the worst, but yes, it does get better. Gucci!

Grade: A -