For all the things that have changed about being a teen — apps and laptops, likes and subscribes, the endless awareness that everyone else really is having more fun than you are, or at least filtering it to make it look that way — the basics are the same.
In his debut feature, Eighth Grade, writer-director Bo Burnham cleverly uses the way things have changed to illustrate the way they’re no different: Loneliness sucks. Crushes are impossible. Adults are weird and try too hard. Connecting with people is a series of failures: putting yourself out there, online or off, and facing rejection, again and again.
Kayla (the magical Elsie Fisher) is enduring all of this. Her YouTube advice videos, full of standard-issue “Be yourself!” encouragement, get only a few views. The world may go into dramatic slo-mo when she spots the boy she’s crushing on, but he notices her only when she fibs about what kind of pictures she has on her phone. When a classmate’s well-intentioned mom invites her to a pool party, she goes, though you can see in her face she knows it’s unlikely to be a good time.
This is the stuff that matters when you’re a young teen, and the best thing about Eighth Grade is that Burnham understands this. His eye for the weight of the little things is precise, whether he’s observing the rhythmless middle-school band or the way Kayla slinks into the pool party, hand around her middle.
Eighth Grade rests entirely on Fisher’s slumped shoulders. And she’s got this. As earnest, playing-at-being-surly, enthusiastic at the wrong times Kayla, she embodies the way middle school is nowhere land, a terrible purgatory before the seeming freedom of high school. Her posture, her imperfect skin, her delivery — it’s so natural it hardly feels like acting. If Kayla has a weakness, it’s that Burnham’s screenplay never lets us in on what she cares about, beyond the approval of her peers: Does she like music or care about being in band? What does she read? What does she sing when she takes the mic at karaoke?
Fisher shines to the end, but the movie around her starts to wade into more familiar teen-movie territory. Briefly, Kayla connects with an older girl, Olivia (Emily Robinson), who shows her around high school — but after a horrible encounter with one of Olivia’s male classmates, we never see her again. As is so often the case, the complex questions of how young women navigate fragile friendships are disappointingly outside the scope of the film. Kayla wants a bestie as well as a boyfriend, but only one of these things is part of the story.
In the film’s most evocative scene, Kayla, alone in her room, drifts into the online world to the nigh-rapturous strains of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” It’s anachronistic and perfect because of that: What she’s doing is the same kind of escape angsty adolescents have craved for ages. Get me out of here! Get me over there. Eighth Grade sometimes ducks the hardest parts of its own story, but Burnham’s grasp on the agonizing uncertainty of not knowing who you are or where you belong is undeniable — and so is the hope he leaves us with: Kayla will figure it out. (Broadway Metro, Cinemark)