Between the age of twelve and eventual adulthood lies a gaping, treacherous chasm, filled with the wilderness of puberty. Hormones rage, bullies reign, and our once-beloved parents become pariahs. Not surprisingly, most movies approach this awkward time of life awkwardly: Actual teen issues of anxiety, depression, and burgeoning sexuality are difficult and three-dimensional, so it’s much easier to sanitize the trials of youth with narratives that have tidy, far-fetched resolutions. With Eighth Grade, writer-director Bo Burnham gives us a film that looks at this ungainly age in a way that’s both wry and real. It’s funny and ultimately moving because it rings with so much quiet truth: Young adulthood is a jungle we’ve all had to machete through.
As Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher, amazingly natural) approaches the last week of eighth grade, she finds her life split like two sides of the moon. By day, Kayla suffers through school in painful, anxiety-ridden silence. At night, she comes alive in the form of perky Youtube videos, dispensing social advice about being confident and popular that she can’t follow herself. She trembles and speaks meekly around the clique of bitchy girls and gets starstruck around her douchebag crush (Luke Prael). Meanwhile, Kayla’s sweetly dorky dad (Josh Hamilton) struggles to find any common ground with a suddenly-distant daughter who regards him like walking, talking Typhus.
Burnham’s script makes many of its points with surprisingly subtle agility: Social media isn’t so much a villain in this story as it is a catalyst for issues that already exist: Instagram stories and Snapchat filters are a place where a wallflower like Kayla can vanish, yet still be visible. She can post and like status updates from the safety of her bedroom. Conversely, the ubiquitous world of DMs and comment sections also gives her enemies an avenue to snub and torment her.
Eighth Grade doesn’t revolve around big dramatic events, because Burnham knows it doesn’t need to. For Elsie and every other fourteen-year-old like her, everything feels urgent and calamitous. Acne, the pains of puppy love, and the slights of dipshit classmates never matter as much we think they do, but that wisdom only comes after we’ve climbed out the canyon. This is a smart, bracingly funny film that ranks as one of the year’s best.