The first scene in Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade is unlike any other I've ever seen. Thirteen year-old Kayla (newcomer Elsie Fisher) talks straight to the camera as she films a video for her burgeoning Youtube channel. “The hard part of being yourself is that it’s not easy,” she says, lacing her sentences with halting "ums" and "likes." (Films usually do this to dismiss young girls — here, it feels loving, authentic.) If you didn't know any better, you'd think Burnham had failed to provide his actress with dialogue, letting her improvise a real monologue for her friends. Her hand gestures attempt to compensate for uncertainty of expression. Her sign off, "Gucci!" is equal parts cool and horrible. She feels like the first real representation of a modern teenager — one who has grown up in a world filled with cameras, but who remains as anxious and inadequate as the generations that preceded her.
Partly, that's because she is one. Fisher had just finished eighth grade herself when she was cast in the film, and her debut is nothing short of stunning.
Eighth Grade takes place in the final week of middle school. Kayla can see the light at the end of the tunnel, a new life in high school where she can shed the identity of "most quiet" and be who she wants to be — although who that person is, she hasn't quite figured out yet. For now, the last stretch of eighth grade still beckons, bringing with it awkward social encounters with Aiden (Luke Prael), Kayla's crush and part of a particular breed of 13-year-old boy who blows raspberries loudly in class before pulling strings of gum out of his mouth (and also asks for nudes); popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) whose mother forces her to invite Kayla to her birthday bash out of pity; and Gabe (Jake Ryan), Kennedy's cousin who likes to spend pool parties proving he can hold his breath longest.
Part of what makes the film so powerful is that it captures the universal awfulness of that period of early adolescence while zoning in the struggles specific to Gen Z. A particularly poignant scene has Kayla scrolling through Instagram in bed, her acne lit up by images of perfect bodies blurred by flattering filters. (Teenagers have always had to contend with this to a certain extent, but it's almost impossible to escape the internet equivalent of the glossy magazine spread.) Figuring out who you are while your body does all sorts of insane things is hard in any era — doing all of that while constantly having to document every part of it is a wholly modern problem.
Movies have this strange habit of never portraying technology correctly. (No one just hangs up without saying goodbye!) Burnham, who gained fame as a YouTube star and stand-up comedian, avoids this pitfall, using social media credibly, and as a way to better understand Kayla's isolation. Her videos are confessional, but also a mirror into her mindset: she has something to say. She's not really shy, she just hasn't found the right way to not be.
Kayla's rock throughout this voyage of self-discovery is her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton, aka Clay's dad from 13 Reasons Why) who deserves a special Movie Dad award. Criteria for winners include enduring painful dinner conversations about how your daughter is growing up so fast; acting "weird" while driving; and being the best, most supportive and understanding parent in the history of parents. (The honour will be shared with Professor Perlman from Call Me By Your Name.)
The best part about Eighth Grade is that it's really about nothing at all. To describe the plot is to list off random facts of teenage existence: school, home, internet, introspection, looking back on moments from the day and cringing, etc. Still, every one of those things feels Extremely Important to the person who's living them, and the film treats each one with that kind of weighty momentousness. "Growing up can be a little scary and weird," Kayla says in one of her videos, basically summarising the entire film.
You will have an urge to compare this movie to Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig's Oscar-nominated film starring Saoirse Ronan. Try not to. Yes, both films focus on the female experience of growing up. But they are vastly different, and the fact that there simply aren't enough female-focused coming-of-age films isn't a reason to lump them together. It's a reason to make more female-focused coming-of-age films.
Bo Burnham has made the kind of movie that makes your heart swell with laughter, sadness, nostalgia, horror, embarrassment, and every single emotion in between. I think about this movie at least once a day, remembering a detail or moment that hadn't struck me before. It's special, and rare, to see such a complex yet understanding and respectful look at a young woman's life.
What's more, despite a current of anxiety that runs throughout the film, the ending is hopeful. Just as you got through eighth grade, so will Kayla. And if high school sucks too, well, there's always college. And then real life. Good luck, Kayla!