High school may suck, but with his feature writing/directing debut “Eighth Grade,” comedian Bo Burnham wants to remind us that middle school is no piece of cake either — especially in the social media era.
His movie is a sincere, painful, occasionally funny and beautifully nonjudgmental status report told from the vantage point of a shy, awkward teenager, exquisitely worried into being by a brilliant Elsie Fisher (“McFarland, USA”).
Neither dependent on laughs nor addicted to humiliation, this ripped-from-a-diary gem finds a sweet spot where both authenticity and exaggeration wrestle for the chance to break your heart.
The main reason Kayla Day (Fisher) stands out as a teen heroine is because, unlike the put-upon adolescents of John Hughes’ oeuvre and the post-“Mean Girls” century, she isn’t armed with barbed one-liners and Hollywoodized nerd-cutes. Kayla stammers when on the spot. Sometimes she’s morosely quiet. She has beautiful hair and acne. She swats away attempts at friendly communication from her loving dad (Josh Hamilton), who clearly grasps she’s going through something.
She’ll flirt with a bad decision, mostly involving boys, and though you sigh relief when it goes nowhere — especially with the fast-talker who tries to get her to take her shirt off — there’s a hurt left behind that’s as palpable as anything.
But sometimes Kayla finds reservoirs of courage, as when she reverses the nightmare of being the ignored guest at a sneery-rich classmate’s pool party by taking the mic during karaoke, or makes socializing overtures to a high school girl who treats her kindly. Burnham’s modus operandi is to show the unadorned day-to-day struggle of a regular girl on a desperate campaign to fix her perceived personality failings before the advent of high school only intensifies the pressure. (The movie is set during graduation week of eighth grade.)
Of course, Kayla, like many millennials, believes in the inherent power of the like/click/subscribe world of social media to further her goals. We first meet her, in fact, as a pixelated, heart-shaped, brightly illuminated face talking directly to us — but really to her computer — about the importance of being yourself. It’s a rambling monologue of vague positivity that, as soon as it ends, Burnham contextualizes with an even more honest wide shot right away of Kayla in bed by herself, in the dark, lit by the harsh, empty glow of a lonely laptop screen quickly shut. This is the true Kayla, we realize, whereas the Kayla on her YouTube channel is the sham. As it turns out, she has few followers and still bristles at being voted Most Quiet by her classmates.
So how long can she fake it? That’s the big question Burnham asks as his startlingly assured first feature effortlessly humanizes a lovable but lost teenager, and demonizes a social media-saturated universe that pushes introverts into ersatz displays of coolness and personality. Though Burnham’s own fame was born of YouTube, he’s since become a regular comedic critic of the internet as an interface for life, and has now made a movie in keeping with the questioning tone of his most recent Netflix stand-up special “Make Happy,” in which he offers this advice: “If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.”
As for his filmmaking chops, they are an appealing mélange of indie directness and playful wit. There are zoom-outs and close-ups worthy of Kubrick at his sauciest, and hauntingly lit, synth-scored reveries when Kayla is online and reflected by screens that feel like 21st century updates to classic cinema’s great mirror shots. But the style rarely gets in the way of the bittersweet tone. Burnham toggles easily between the deadpan humor of shallow adolescence and the seriousness of Kayla’s personal mission. By the end, it lands with graceful notes that feel earned, not slapped on.
But he wouldn’t have nearly the movie he has without Fisher — reportedly an eighth-grader herself during filming — who makes every slump-shouldered walk, low-wattage mope, and overly eager exchange into a mini-opera of deeply rooted, barely contained anxiety.
When Kayla roots through a time capsule shoebox left by her sixth-grade self, and addressed to “The Coolest Girl in the World,” Fisher’s despondent silence speaks volumes, namely “How did I get the future me so wrong?” It is the kind of deeply felt, unvarnished portrayal that’s been missing from even the most sure-footed and enjoyable of recent teen movies.