I’ve been talking and thinking about this fun-to-decode, impossible-to-forget gift from the cinema gods since I saw it at Sundance in January. Now Eighth Grade is going into wide release – and no excuses will be accepted for you missing it. First-time filmmaker Bo Burnham – the 27-year-old, comedy-and-music dude from YouTube – has taken the tiniest details in the life of a 13-year-old girl moving through the digital age, filtered them through his own madly inventive headspace, and created the kind of movie that leaves you laughing hysterically or fighting back tears, often simultaneously. It’s not a documentary, though it often feels like one.
Kayla, the eighth grader played by the astonishing Elsie Fisher, seems to be growing up – or fighting it – right before our eyes. (The young actor voiced young Agnes in the first two Despicable Me movies, but this is her breakthrough performance.) She wants so desperately to be cool that barely speaks at her middle school for fear of shattering the illusion; rather than earn her friends and popularity, it simply gets her voted “Most Silent” in the yearbook. Instead, Kayla makes YouTube videos that no one watches about how to be confident and put yourself out there. signing off the catchphrase “Gucci!” It’s a case study in adolescent awkwardness.
Burnham has a keen ear for teen-speak, however, and though Kayla barely reacts to a student drill about a potential school shooting, she’s alert to every slight inflicted by her peers – especially the hallway divas too self-absorbed to even bother being proper mean girls. When she snags a reluctant invite to a pool party thrown by the popular Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), you can feel her mortification at putting on a swimsuit; ditto being in proximity to the hunky Aiden (Luke Prael), who casually asks if Kayla is into blow jobs. The girl who’s never been kissed nods in the affirmative – then looks up what the phrase means on YouTube. Burnham doesn’t praise or demonize the Internet: It’s just there, a fact of every life, ready to measure human value through likes, shares, retweets and Snapchat judgements. And it’s how Kayla reacts to the world when her smartphone is temporarily (and scarily) out of reach that raises the bar for both the character and the film itself.
At home, barely looking up when her single dad (a tender, terrific Josh Hamilton) tries to initiate conversation, Kayla is a slave to her devices. But when she visits the high school she’ll soon be attending, the young woman clicks with Olivia (Emily Robinson), a compassionate senior who helps her open up. The progress is interrupted by an incident in which Kayla finds herself alone in a car with one of Olivia’s friends, Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), an older boy who tries to intimidate her into taking her shirt off. The scene, which stops short of the cringe level you’ll find in the films of Harmony Korine and Todd Solondz, is nonetheless unnerving. You feel every rattling moment of it as Fisher, who 14 years old during filming, cuts to the core of adolescent agony. And in Kayla’s climactic scene with her father, her awkwardness becomes essential to human connection.
It’s stand-out sequences like their heart-to-heart – and the superb speech that Hamilton delivers during it – that make Eighth Grade is one of the best movies of the year. But mostly, it’s the empathy that Burnham invests in his characters that turns this coming-of-age movie into something special and unique. The comedian-turned-filmmaker has the wisdom to know that eighth grade isn’t a stage – it’s a state of mind most us never entirely grow out of. That’s why his movie feels both indelibly of the moment and achingly timeless. Gucci!