Perhaps out of psychological necessity, I don’t think too often or too deeply about my adolescence. While I’m sure it wasn’t any more awkward or difficult than anyone else’s, I’m equally certain that the value of such biographical re-examination wouldn’t hold up under a cursory cost-benefit analysis. Fortunately, comedian-turned-writer/director Bo Burnham doesn’t share my aversion, as his debut feature Eighth Grade mines the depths of teen trauma to find a deeply poignant examination of the complexities of growing up in increasingly complicated times. Sensitive but seldom sentimental, moving but never mawkish, Burnham’s portrait of adolescent angst for the Snapchat generation is sweet, funny and relatable in ways that few films on the subject ever approach.
It’s also surprisingly brutal, pulling no punches, as Burnham’s script peels back the layers of anxiety and neurosis surrounding and subsuming 14-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher). Kayla confronts the standard coming-of-age tropes as she navigates the nightmarish transition from middle school to high school, a hellscape of social media-obsessed mean girls and sexually aggressive boys. Her caring but clueless dad (Josh Hamilton) is no help, and her avocation as a YouTuber doling out advice about confidence and popularity seems just as doomed to failure as her interpersonal relationships. It’s a perennial premise with a millennial twist, but Burnham somehow manages to defy predictability as he crafts cringe-inducing pathos.
The heart of Eighth Grade is Fisher’s performance as Kayla, and despite her relative paucity of experience, she carries the film with an assuredness that her character lacks. Burnham’s script is surprisingly effective in its efforts to plumb the recesses of its protagonist’s psyche, and a remarkably tense scene in which our heroine faces the threat of sexual assault proves particularly suspenseful. But the film is at its best in the lighter moments between Kayla and her dad, or in her first date with a hapless paramour who tries to woo her with his impressive McNugget etiquette — scenes that impart a much-needed comedic counterpoint to the heightened melodrama of Kayla’s many moments of mortification.
The film is certainly not without its flaws, as Burnham’s directorial reach occasionally exceeds his grasp. A pool party sequence heavily derivative of Fellini’s famed health spa tracking shot from 8 1/2 drags on far too long, and rather than Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” it’s set to an obtrusively pulsating electronic score. But Eighth Grade isn’t a film about visual flourishes; it’s about the inner landscape of its protagonist as elucidated by the technological context that informs it, a narrative approach that explores contemporary youth culture without demonizing it. I may have no desire to relive my eighth-grade experience, and I may be too old and out of touch to understand the constantly evolving pressures placed on kids (and parents) by the shifting landscape of perpetual social media connectivity — I’ve never had so much as a Facebook page, after all — but through Burnham’s work, I can at least base my lack of interest in such things in a more informed perspective. It may not be a perfect film, but as the kids (apparently?) say, it’s Gucci.