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.