Indie filmmakers have been telling poignant coming-of-age stories for so long that sometimes one may wonder if any compelling ones are left to tell. YouTube star turned filmmaker Bo Burnham proves the affirmative with his debut feature, Eighth Grade. A hit at January's Sundance Film Festival, this portrait of one shy girl weathering middle school is one of the funniest, most cringe-inducing and most poignant films of the year.
There's no high concept or stunning twist here. As you may surmise from the title, our protagonist, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), is in eighth grade. With a week to go until her graduation to high school, she opens the time capsule she created in sixth grade and realizes that the popular, confident tween persona she envisioned for herself never materialized. Her YouTube videos, in which she lectures invisible viewers on topics such as "being yourself," have hardly any hits. Her classmates have voted her "most quiet." Her affable single dad (Josh Hamilton) thinks she's cool, but he's the only one.
Desperate to have something to show for her milestone, Kayla forces herself out of her comfort zone. She attends a "cool" girl's pool party, hangs out with a friendly high schooler (Emily Robinson) and even, in an excruciating scene, tries to convince her oblivious crush (Luke Prael) that she's worthy of him. As anyone who's been through adolescence can guess, none of it goes too well.
While social media are central to Kayla's life, technology doesn't do much to alter a storyline that could easily have played out in 1998 or 1978. By giving Kayla windows into the lives of classmates and celebrities, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube simply drive home her own insignificance.
Stylistically, though, technology is vital to the film, as Burnham demonstrates Kayla's immersion using montages that superimpose her reflection on ever-changing screen images. Her comfort zone, we learn, is the island of light defined by her bed and her laptop — a refuge where her dad, well meaning as he is, can't connect with her.
In some scenes, Burnham uses the cinematic equivalents of a photo-app filter — slow motion, light distortions, musical cues — to convey Kayla's perspective, then switches abruptly back to naturalism. It's a little bit John Hughes, a little bit François Truffaut.
Ultimately, though, naturalism is the core of Eighth Grade, because the whole thing would fall apart without Fisher's painfully real performance. Though the now 15-year-old actress has a significant résumé, including voicing Agnes in the Despicable Me movies, she never for a second comes across as precocious or playing to a crowd.
Offering advice to her peers on YouTube, Kayla is chirpy and voluble; when it's time to put her rhetoric into practice at school, she freezes, her eyes glazing over in mute misery. We see her brain working as she recites the scripts she associates with popularity. And we sigh in relief whenever she allows herself to be genuine — even when she's lashing out at her poor dad for no good reason.
It's impossible to watch Eighth Grade without cringing in secondhand embarrassment — and remembering one's own moments of firsthand embarrassment. The film reminds us that adults have their pecking orders, too, with social media making such hierarchies visible as never before.
Ultimately, though, Burnham gives Kayla — and us — several merciful rays of hope. He reminds us that, yes, things generally do get better after this most awkward of ages. More importantly, even if they don't, we get better at dealing with them.