The adorably cringe-worthy “Eighth Grade” will make you wonder, “Was I EVER that awkward, shy, naive, delusional or unintentionally cruel?”
A better question as you’re pondering the closing credits might be, “How do ANY of us get that that awkward first year of our teens and last year of childhood?”
The comic and actor turned writer and director Bo Burnham has conjured up a hopeful girl filled with dread, a pained young teen determined, with help from Google, Youtube and the life lessons she’s figured out all by herself, to have a better time of it in high school now that she’s in the last week of middle school.
Kayla, given a wincing, winsome turn by young Elsie Fisher, is an obnoxious phone-addicted, media and web-savvy child who wonders, as she attempts to face-to-face chat with classmates staring down at their screens, why she has no friends.
She’s delusional enough to post life-lesson Youtube videos “for kids just like me.” Sure, the version of herself she presents in these two minute refreshingly under-rehearsed sermons is some sort of idealized, together worldwise eighth grader. Makeup and a tight camera shot hide her pimples and slow-to-fade baby fat plumpness.
And her life lessons, about “being yourself” and “Getting out there” are more just encouragements for her to start doing what she tells others to do. Because Kayla is the girl nobody remembers.
She hangs her head in shame at being named “Quietest” in the “Superlative” student honors, stares down into the time capsule she and every kid had to make when they entered middle school just a couple of years before, and recognizes her failure.
But if you’re not just a little inspired by her determination to hit restart and delighted by the blind alleys she wanders into along the way, you must have forgotten eighth grade — or be living through that hellish year right this moment.
Burnham works from tried and true coming of age comedy tropes — the pool party where body shaming is a real risk, the scrawny rebel classmate (Luke Prael) who has his own thumping theme music every time he pops into Kayla’s palpitating field of vision, mean girls, sexual curiosity and blundering misinformation.
We worry for Kayla as if she was our own. Some of us remember “Thirteen” — the movie, and the troubled, make or break by making big life mistakes year we all have to survive.
She saves all her anger for her single dad, given a fragile, fearful flavor by Josh Hamilton, still worried sick about her every pitfall and bad habit (the nonstop iPhone ogling) Kayla’s developed, playing a father whose “dad humor” long ago lost its audience of one.
Another big question the movie asks is “Will Kayla finally give dear-old-Dad a break?”
But Burnham, with rare exceptions, treats these harrowing life hurdles Kayla is rushing through with juvenile crudity that defaults to benign. The hunky rebel’s into “dirty pictures” and sexual practices he’s probably only read about online? He’s out of luck with a shy girl who finds the taste of “practice” bananas revolting.
A “shadow a high schooler day” to help kids brace for the introduction of high school is a grand opportunity for “You’re a little girl” humiliation. But her mentor (Emily Robinson) is bubbly, outgoing, just-popular enough and kind enough to take this too-young wallflower under her wing.
There are scenes that will make your jaw drop, and moments that make your heart stop. The girl-vlogging her every inane thought onto the Internet gimmick was played out before “Eighth Grade” and the far less edgy “Hope Springs Eternal” (opening next month used it.
But from the dorky teachers trying to act hip to the kids acting too cool and grownup for their own good, “Eighth Grade” feels lived in and real.
And the realest of them all is Miss Fisher, un self-consciously self-conscious, turning Kayla into a poster child for lonesome misery, but a bright kid who learns from every single stumble, and synthesizes those lessons into homilies for her (non-existent) online audience and for herself.
“You can’t be brave if you aren’t afraid.”
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual material
Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Missy Yager
Credits: Written and directed by Bo Burnham. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:33