It’s a unique movie that can crush your soul and leave you in stitches at the same time.
Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” follows the hilarious, heartbreaking and sometimes inspiring misadventures of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a sweet social outsider trying to make sense out the world of confusion she lives in. As anyone who has made it through junior high can attest, it is an effort doomed to failure.
Kayla is an only child, living with her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) in the kind of middle-class suburbia that could stand-in for most any place in the country. She’s so unassuming that she wins a school superlative award for being “most quiet,” but she regularly doles out life advice in confessional videos for a YouTube channel no one is watching.
“Eighth Grade” operates with a very loose plot, framed around a special time capsule she prepared for herself back in the sixth grade, when middle school felt like a new world of opportunity. Mostly Burnham’s film is a portrait of Kayla’s world — warts, acne and all.
The beginning of the film has a kind of “Napoleon Dynamite” quality, albeit more somber, and the genius is in its details. We watch Kayla’s awkward principal as he “dabs” for unimpressed students, and an orchestra teacher with a 12-inch rat tail who painfully grinds his crew through a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” so brutal it would make most anyone take a knee. Kids sit through maturation classes and, in one sobering passage, get emergency training in case of a school shooting.
The sweet thing about Kayla’s YouTube videos is that while she presents herself as an experienced mentor, we see her struggling to try to live her own advice in her day-to-day life. Early on, she is invited to a birthday party by her classmate Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) — who is under orders from her mother — and we watch Kayla edge through the terrifying experience of attending a party full of 14-year-old “cool” kids, including her basketball-obsessed crush Aiden (Luke Prael).
Later, a high school shadowing event introduces her to Olivia (Emily Robinson), a senior who takes her under her wing and shines a brief ray of hope into her darkened existence. But even that turns bad when a ride home from the mall turns into an uncomfortable game of Truth or Dare.
Through it all, social media is the lifeline of the student body. Kayla is so engrossed in the worlds of Snapchat and Instagram (but not Facebook, which is uncool, according to Kennedy) that Mark can barely get his daughter to put down her phone and pull out her earbuds at dinner, and whenever she tries to break the ice with someone at school, they pull the same behavior with her.
Though “Eighth Grade” is about preteens, with content that will be familiar to anyone who has gotten within a mile of a middle school, parents should know that Burnham’s film doesn’t shy away from the darker side of its subject matter. While the only thing that specifically merits the film’s rating are about a half-dozen uses of R-rated profanity, there are also vulgar discussions of subjects like oral sex and texting nudes images, a half-second cutaway of implied masturbation, and that Truth or Dare game, though not graphic, should scare every parent enough to keep his or her teenage daughter out of the public eye until she turns 30.
It all serves to elevate Fisher, who masterfully captures a sympathetic role that demands both intelligence and heart-stopping awkwardness. She’s so good at being awkward that you’ll probably leave the theater wanting to reassure every middle-schooler you see that things will be OK.
But there’s the rub. “Eighth Grade” may be about middle-schoolers, but its technology-engrossed — and crippled? — culture may feel all too familiar for the grown-ups, too. The toughest thing about watching “Eighth Grade” as adults may be realizing how far we haven’t come.
“Eighth Grade” is rated R for strong language and some sexual material.