Eighth Grade is an awkward, honest story about growing up

I’m a sucker for teen coming-of-age movies. Mean Girls, Rushmore, Almost Famous, Easy A: if it’s a film about an awkward outsider trying to find their place in the world, you can count me in.

Even when this sort of film works, as it does in the movies listed above, though, they don’t really show what adolescence is like. Instead, they present a polished, dramatized impression of those uncomfortable pubescent years. For example, check out this scene from The Perks of Being a Wallflower:

Patrick (Ezra Miller) welcomes Charlie (Logan Lerman) to the group, saying: “You see things, and you understand. You’re a wallflower.” Charlie replies, “I didn’t think anyone noticed me.” It’s a moving moment in a pretty good film. It also feels completely removed from anything that would have ever happened in high school. The people are too beautiful, the speeches too articulate. It’s charming, but it’s definitely not real.

There’s not a single moment in Eighth Grade that I could say this about. The earnest, hilarious directorial debut from comedian Bo Burnham rejects tidy moments like these in favor of immense awkwardness and absolute honesty, and the result is a film that portrays modern adolescence more accurately than perhaps any other film of recent years.

Eighth Grade follows the final week of middle school for a quiet, insecure girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher, who deserves Oscar consideration for the role). There is no life-altering event that shakes up her world in this week; she just continues to navigate life as an outsider, trying to get a handle on friends, boys, and the Internet. It’s a tight 90 minutes, an expertly paced story of teenage dread and discovery.

In her solitude, Kayla fills her time recording advice videos on YouTube (they’re mostly for herself; most of the videos have one view). She doles out wisdom on topics like how to be confident and how to fit in, even as she struggles with these very issues in real life. In these moments, Burnham delivers a vision of adolescent life on the Internet with a level of nuance that few filmmakers have achieved. It’s a cliché now to say that people create a different version of themselves online. This is true in Eighth Grade, but Burnham shows how flimsy and self-aware this pursuit is: in shots of Kayla perfecting a ‘woke up like this’ selfie and despondently scrolling through Twitter feeds, it’s clear any online personality she’s cultivating isn’t one she actually identifies with.

At the same time, we also see how the videos Kayla records boost her sense of self-worth. Kayla’s dad (Josh Hamilton), much to her horror, says he’s proud of how clearly she expresses herself in those videos, and he’s right. She may be presenting an alternative, more confident version of herself, but using the videos as an outlet to express herself might be helping her become that confident person she’s pretending to be. Burnham’s depiction of her online life is reminiscent of the monologue he gives about social media in his incredible 2016 stand-up special, Bo Burnham: Make Happy. Bringing the lights up and kneeling before the audience, Burnham says:

“I worried that making a show about performing would be too meta, it wouldn’t be relatable to people that aren’t performers. But what I found is that I don’t think anyone isn’t...Social media is just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, ‘here, perform everything, to each other, all the time, for no reason.’ It’s prison. It’s horrific. It’s performer and audience melded together. What do we want more than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member? I know very little about anything, but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.”

Burnham became famous on Youtube, and understands more than perhaps any other modern creator how profoundly the Internet has reshaped the social landscape of adolescence. He’s smart enough to know that even when we’re presenting something online, we know what a facade the whole thing is, and it makes Kayla’s online moments more crushing, and more resonant.

Burnham’s ability to honestly depict the adolescent experience while evading coming-of-age tropes goes beyond Kayla’s online life. A pool party, rather than serving as an opportunity for the ‘cool girls’ to shun her, functions more as a horror scene, with grotesque teenage body contortions and blaring electronic music. It feels more real because it evokes the sense of absolute terror this sort of social function can instill. (Burnham has said the french cannibalism coming-of-age film Raw was an influence on this movie, if that’s any indication of the tone Eighth Grade sometimes takes on.) Later, Kayla delivers a speech to these same ‘cool girls’ which, in another movie, would be a rousing, empowering turning point. Here, Kayla is stammering, inarticulate, avoiding eye contact, and her speech is cut short. She’s proud of herself regardless.

Burnham also never feels the need to bring scenes as unnecessarily far as they might go in other films. One particularly uncomfortable moment, when Kayla receives unwanted sexual advances, doesn’t get very far, but the impact of the moment on her is understood. Scenes with friends Kayla tentatively makes are also restrained: the friends help Kayla feel more socially comfortable, but the process of self-discovery is an insular one. Unlike The Perks of Being a Wallflower, no one is raising a toast to Kayla. She's learning how to grow up herself.

The exception to that independent self-discovery is Kayla’s relationship with her dad (Josh Hamilton). Kayla is resistant to any advice her dad tries to offer her; she spends a good portion of the movie telling him to stop talking. Her dad is unwavering in his support, waiting patiently and awkwardly until she's ready to come around. When he finally gets a chance to speak, he delivers a touching speech in the best scene of the film, and one of my favorite scenes in years. Like Fisher, I hope Hamilton gets some Oscar buzz as well.

Throughout all of this, Burnham actively avoids imparting any specific wisdom onto the audience. There are things to be learned about growing up, but Eighth Grade acts more as a time capsule of adolescence in 2018, full of rich details: a band director with a rat tail; a teacher dabbing to desperately relate to his students; a school shooting drill.

The film reminds me again of Make Happy, in this sense. In the ‘Lower Your Expectations’ song from that stand-up special, Burnham trashes the unattainable standards of romance in our culture before delivering this message about love: We all deserve love/it’s the very best part of being alive. But he follows that up with an acknowledgement of his own limitations: And I would know/I just turned 25. With Eighth Grade, Burnham is again aware of his own limitations, and the film is better for it.

In the end, Kayla lays out the only lesson Burnham will allow: “Just because things are happening to you now doesn’t mean they’re always going to happen to you.” It's a quote that represents why Eighth Grade stands a step above many other coming-of-age stories, because it’s not really a coming-of-age story at all. There’s no one moment in our lives where we can pinpoint when we are becoming a better version of ourselves. Things are bad, and then later, they might not be as bad. It’s a wise, measured way to leave the film for a first-time director. I can’t wait to see what Burnham has in store next.

Eighth Grade: 3.5 stars