I was not prepared for Eighth Grade. Since its rave-rousing Sundance premiere, stand-up comedian turned writer/director Bo Burnham’s debut feature has been gaining buzz as a great coming-of-age tale. I knew my peers thought it was “so good,” and I assumed that meant captivating and fun with occasional streaks of agonizing secondhand embarrassment. Basically, I imagined Lady Bird Jr. But Eighth Grade is not a bittersweet romp. It is not fun. It’s less a movie, and more a cringe-inducing, full-body flashback to the exquisite excruciation of being an adolescent.
Eight Grade follows 13-year-old vlogger Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a deeply introverted middle schooler who works out her insecurities through a series of self-help videos. At school she is ignored by the popular kids and gets the dubious distinction as “Most Quiet” in her eighth-grade class’s graduation superlatives. But online, she exudes confidence, delivering advice about how to take risks, go for your dreams, and make new friends. Still, she has little-to-no views on these vids. And when she tries to act out her own advice, she’s sabotaged by self-doubt and panic. And that panic is contagious, spreading out from the screen and into the theater like a noxious gas.
Forget the Hollywood sheen of teen comedies like Easy A, Can’t Buy Me Love, or The Breakfast Club. This pre-teen comedy centers on a girl who is stuck in that painfully awkward place between childhood and teendom. She has baby fat, pimples, flyaway strands of hair, and an oft-panicked expression. She has an eagerness to be loved and accepted that is so radiant it’s unnerving. Not because Kayla is pathetic or a punch line, but because she is all of us. Burnam never mocks his self-doubting heroine. Instead, he plunges us inside her skin, where we can feel every flash of dizzying excitement, breath-snatching anxiety, and soul-scorching embarrassment.
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