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Review: Burnham’s 'Eighth Grade' is a sweet, savvy study in teen awkwardness

Elsie Fisher

Elsie Fisher courtesy of A24

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that teens are human. So you can’t totally blame movies for reducing adolescent characters to stock types that we can presumably all identify with, allowing kids in the audience to live out their fantasies and grown folks to indulge their nostalgia.

But some of the best American films in recent years—Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen—have gone beyond “relatability,” keeping the standard elements of the coming-of-age plot (combative parents, bad sex, rocky friendships) while focusing on the idiosyncrasies that make their heroines stand out as individuals.

Elsie Fisher’s Kayla, who endures her final week of middle school in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, is their cinematic peer. In her YouTube videos, she perkily examines self-help maxims. (A typical insight: “The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not always easy.”) IRL, though, Kayla moves with the slumped shoulders of a kid who doesn’t want to stand out, the baseline expression on her round, pleasant face a look of slight apprehension that then flickers rapidly between other uncomfortable emotions without settling precisely on any one of them.

But Kayla wants to grow as a person. And with no help from friends or her kind, dorky, but hands-off dad, she relies on the internet, where she studies makeup tips and blowjob techniques as the blue electronic glow accentuates her acne. (Even her own videos, we realize, are her way of placing good advice in the mouth of an electronic avatar so it’s easier for her to accept.) Himself one of the first generation of viral YouTube stars, Burnham is non-judgmental, perceptive, and matter-of-fact about how fully tech is integrated into teen lives, but he also plays internet absorption for broad laughs—at one point, some high school kids debate whether Kayla having Snapchat while she was still in middle school means she belongs to a different generation than theirs.

A series of small, awkward dramas plays out—Kayla survives a snooty girl’s pool party, a flirtatious game of truth or dare, and more than one inopportune parental intrusion—but Eighth Grade is more interested in the rhythm of middle-school life than incident. And its script precisely captures the inarticulate grammar of the 21st-century American teen: When Kayla punctuates a thought with a “like” and “um,” or softens a statement with “or something” or “sorry,” she’s speaking a language with its own rules and conventions.

In fact, Fisher’s performance is so convincing you can easily overlook how idealized Kayla is—she’s almost too sweet, too capable, too self-sufficient to be a real kid. If the female directors I mentioned above are eager to run their heroines through the wringer, Burnham dotes on Kayla like an overprotective parent—the assurances her dad spouts could be the director’s own thoughts. No matter the adolescent indignities she encounters, her fate feels gently cupped in the director’s hands, and we can be assured she’ll never be too crassly humiliated, never too fully defeated.

Compared to more tough-minded coming-of-age movies, this can feel like pulling punches. But there’s a generosity of spirit here that’s hard to fault. Because honestly, teens are sweeter, more capable, and more self-sufficient than they get credit for.

Eighth Grade
Director: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
Rated: R
Theater: Now showing, Uptown Theater