As she’s getting ready for bed after a taxing day at school, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), the heroine of Bo Burnham’s wonderful new film Eighth Grade, shoos her dad away, posts up in her bed, and cracks open her laptop. With her face illuminated just by the glow of her MacBook, Kayla pores over that most dreadful and magical of places: the internet. As Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” kicks up on the soundtrack, Kayla scrolls through feeds, watches videos, and takes everything in, her expression that particular mix of hypnotized and bored that we can all adopt when we get sucked into a screen.
It’s tough to make movies about technology, youth culture, and the frightening limitlessness of a connected world without coming off as patronizing or out-of-touch. Burnham, a 27-year-old stand-up comedian who first emerged as a YouTube star in the early days of the website, is running headlong at those topics here with his debut film, and the results are resonant. His portrait of Kayla’s eighth-grade experience is as wrenching as it is sweetly funny, and in moments like her Enya-scored night of browsing, it can be at once mesmerizing and terrifying.
Kayla lives with her dad, Mark (a warm and charming Josh Hamilton), and she has a YouTube channel on which she delivers monologues about teen life and making friends, always signing off with the catchphrase “Gucci!” There’s a poignancy to these low-fi nuggets of empowerment she posts, even after the viewer realizes that Kayla’s middle-school life isn’t quite as sunny as her online persona. But who doesn’t dial things up a little on their social-media feeds? At no point does Eighth Grade seem aghast with Kayla’s excessive use of her phone or her laptop; Burnham understands the protective shell they’ve built around her, and how much that can help as much as hurt.
The film tries to understand, rather than judge, and it does that by centering firmly on Kayla. This isn’t an ensemble piece; the other characters at school and home revolve around her, even as they ignore her. How better to summarize the teenage experience? Everything that’s happening is happening to Kayla, including her shy and awkward interactions with the popular girls at school, or her encouraging visit to the new high school she’ll be attending, where she’s taken under the wing of a bubbly senior named Olivia (Emily Robinson).
Through everything, her dad does his best to reach her and remind her how great he thinks she is (just about the last thing Kayla wants to hear, of course). But the film doesn’t venture into afterschool-special territory. Burnham isn’t using his main character as a symbol of some larger crisis of teens broadcasting online—Kayla is almost intentionally inconspicuous, perhaps afraid to share her sillier or bolder thoughts for fear of coming off as weird. The rare occasions when they do breach the surface are a delight, offering evidence of the smart, fascinating person Kayla is surely on her way to becoming.
Although I’m quite a few years removed from being a teen, Burnham dramatizes moments so universal they had me squirming in my seat, grimacing in sympathy. At one point, Kayla attends a popular girl’s birthday party and sees her gift (a stodgier choice than others) opened in front of all the girl’s friends—an adolescent ceremony I recalled with horror. Some of what Burnham strikes upon here will ring true for most viewers, while other scenes (particularly the material connected to Kayla’s online interactions) speak directly to a newer generation.
I cannot fully vouch for Eighth Grade’s realism, but the film never seemed to lean into the operatic awkwardness of a Todd Solondz movie, or the verbose emotionality of a John Hughes work. Burnham keeps his narrative low to the ground, and roots the audience in Fisher’s astonishing performance. She’s taciturn, but her eyes shimmer with excitement and hurt; her body language is always calibrated to her environment, be it curled up defensively at school, or grumpily slumped at home. Hamilton plays her dad not as a pillar of wisdom but as an encouraging, sometimes embarrassing pal who can be odd in his own way—very much his daughter’s father. It’s marvelous stuff, capped with a moving monologue near the end of the film.
But what most stunned me about Eighth Grade was how well directed it is. It’s rare that teen movies have the kind of visual acuity and verve that Burnham achieves here. I mentioned the “Orinoco Flow” scene because I was taken aback by how well it captured the sensation of plunging into the online realm. This is a film told with a strange sort of rhythm, one that had me discombobulated as I exited the theater. In tackling the experiences of a 13-year-old, Burnham gave himself a genuine challenge for his first movie. With Eighth Grade, he’s not only met that challenge but also set a high bar for every future attempt.