Do you remember how exciting colorful braces were just to regret them a few days later? Or how evil your parents seemed one minute when you’d be crying in their arms the next? The turbulence of puberty is a peculiar force that has marked all of our lives at some point in time, and comedian Bo Burnham captures it at its most gut-wrenching, gut-busting level in his directorial debut “Eighth Grade.”
The latest release from indie studio A24, “Eighth Grade” follows Kayla Day, a tech-addled teen in her last week of middle school. She is a real 13-year-old girl, played by breakout star Elsie Fisher, with acne, ambition and a whole lot of angst. Her father (Josh Hamilton) and co-pilot through this tumultuous time isn’t much help. When he’s not struggling to connect with Kayla, he is instructing her to put herself out there more. But as we all can attest, what do parents know anyway?
Her days in suburbia are less of an epic and more of a window into the life of an everyday teen who is just trying to fit in. Sounds familiar, right? Kayla vys for the cool kids’ attentions and hopelessly flirts with heartthrob Aiden during safety drills, but alas, only manages to emerge from her exasperating eighth grade year with a “Most Quiet” superlative.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is rich with colorful characters from Burnham’s imagination. But, as in real life, only a few stick around, like Olivia (Emily Robinson), an older girl who befriends Kayla during a high school tour. Pool parties and mall meetups bring a bevy of one-liners and well-directed performances, but the ultimate standout and center of Burnham’s world is the fiery Fisher herself.
Whether it be her proximity to adolescence or just undeniable talent, Fisher gives a heartbreaking performance that will make everyone want to give their adolescent self a hug. Through pursed lips and sullen eyes, she conveys everything you need to know.
But it’s not all heartbreak and angry emojis in this 21st century coming-of-age tale. Burnham’s heroine is more brave than I remember my own self being at age 13. Her YouTube page on self-help and self-love offers a glimpse of the Kayla that her pubescent peers will never see. It’s an honest ode to the technological age that both hinders and shapes this generation.
We see vlogs on how to face your fears and let people know the real you, and unlike Burnham’s own “Martha” poem from 2015, Kayla finds her wings near the film’s end. And mimicking the fleetingness of eighth grade, itself, “Eighth Grade” is over as soon as it begins. Its swift 90-minute runtime is similar to that of last year’s “Lady Bird.” When the credits roll, you are fiending for more, but even so, it’s a dense film packed with gems around every cul de sac.
Burnham’s writing really outdoes itself, here, and that’s saying a lot if you’ve ever seen his Netflix specials, like “Words, Words, Words” or “Make Happy.” He sprinkles the dialogue with a generous amount of “likes,” to go along with a number of dabs, too and other Instagrammable actions. His direction isn’t shabby either. Unlike “Lady Bird,” this is a female coming-of-age with no female attached. However, Burnham carefully crafts an all too familiar character and delivers justice to the more touchy subject matter. While the film is filled with tropes of adolescence, his Kayla is not. She is never a caricature of who we once were, but rather a look in the mirror at how far we’ve come.
In the film’s final moments, Kayla asks her dad to help burn a keepsake box of knick knacks. As they turn to ash, Kayla refers to them as “sorta my hopes and dreams.” If this one line doesn’t encapsulate the end-all, be-all angst of middle school, I don’t what else can. Puberty sucks, but “Eighth Grade” doesn’t. So grab a fidget spinner and relax because it’s gonna be lit.
And in honor of Kayla’s journey, the WSN staff has mustered up the courage to share photos from their own time in “Eighth Grade.” Enjoy!
“Eighth Grade” opens in New York and Los Angeles theaters on July 13.
Email Ryan Mikel at [email protected].