Kayla Day is terrified, even if she doesn't always show it. At home she's stone silent, avoiding her father's attempts to make conversation by blaring music and checking Instagram during dinner. On the internet, she releases YouTube videos about being yourself into the online void, her low view totals reflecting her actual lack of self-confidence.
It's a tale that is both timeless and modern, an awkward and alienated kid who has added “social media” to the list of traditional teenage hurdles that must be leapt over. Writer-director Bo Burnham doesn't try to turn the coming-of-age story on its head; more impressively, he adapts it for a generation that feels—to anyone over 20—both unique and doomed. Of course, they're neither, and it's refreshing to see that sentiment expressed cinematically.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is, as the title indicates, in eighth grade. She's relatively friendless and trudging her way through the final days of middle school, accepting pity invites to pool parties and making her aforementioned videos. Through interactions with her peers, including the popular Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and Kayla's crush Aiden (Luke Prael), Burnham offers up a startlingly accurate view of the world through a nervous young person's eyes.
It helps that he's navigated his own version of this terrain. The first-time auteur burst onto the comedy scene in 2006 via viral videos; he started as the annoying new kid on the block but has evolved into a sort of elder statesman at the ripe old age of 27. It's likely those 12 years in the spotlight, suddenly adored yet far from fully formed, allowed him to re-tap into teenage anxieties so precisely. Plenty of movies include anxiety as a key cog of the growing-up process, but few focus on it this intently. Burnham draws out every excruciating moment, for both humor and tension, and brings his audience back to whenever they last felt awkward and unloved.
Which is a little weird; it's odd, or at least different, for a mid-20s male comedian to write a movie with a teenage female lead. But Burnham gets that this is a universal story; Kayla's trials and tribulations are standard fare for anyone who felt uncomfortable in middle school, high school, or beyond. Every step into an unfamiliar place is like leaping into space without oxygen; every conversation with a classmate—friend or foe, cool or nerdy—could be life or death. Not everyone felt this way in eighth grade, but at some point we all did. One of this movie's great strengths is how it presses forward confidently, knowing its audience will find an emotional entryway.
Eighth Grade also gets bonus points for realistically depicting social media, something dozens of other movies over the last decade have tried and failed to do. Burnham doesn't go the easy route and paint Snapchat and Instagram as the sole cause of society's ills; instead, his teenage characters accept apps as part of life. And, more importantly, they're able to talk about them without sounding hokey and fake. These age-appropriate actors and actresses (Fisher is 15) have grown up with social media and get it, for better and worse. It may not feel natural to us (he says as a decrepit-sounding 32-year-old) but it does to them, and Burnham smartly leans into that understanding.
How you respond to the ending is indicative of how much baggage you're carrying around; Kayla's intimate conversation with her father (Josh Hamilton) is catnip for anyone with trouble emoting, but it's also a tad trite for a movie that had embraced a different kind of simplicity. Regardless, there's not much to dislike about Eighth Grade. It's funny, Fisher is fearlessly perfect—how many 15-year-olds want closeups of their acne on a giant screen?—and it's illuminating without being preachy. If you want even the barest insight about Kids These Days, or just reinforcement that it's all the same shit in a different wrapper, you can do no better.