A coming-of-age movie about a 13-year-old girl written and directed by a guy just shy of 30 years old who got famous for making funny songs on YouTube is the least appealing movie logline to me, just behind “Doctor Who snuff film.” For some admittedly shallow and wholly indefensible reason, the fact that Eighth Grade is one of the most deftly handled, exceptionally moving films of the year makes me resent first-time director Bo Burnham. I’m sure soon I’ll be telling everyone they have to hear the greatest rock opera of all time, written and performed by the We Rate Dogs Twitter account guy.
Much like how life feels, Eighth Grade has no meaningful plot. Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a painfully shy middle-schooler preparing to be thrust into the hellish threshing mechanism that is high-school. Her single-parent dad (Josh Hamilton) is a kind doofus who loves the shit out of his kid in a confused way that feels palpably authentic, even to non-spawners like myself. The mirrored cluelessness between the two underlines Burnham’s thesis: Nobody has any idea what they’re doing at any point in life, and everyone is scared and sad about it.
Kayla is an avid vlogger whose videos are always tragically positioned as “tips” to help others with all the anguish and insecurities she hasn’t even begun to overcome. Fisher is so good, so raw and so nuanced, one can only pray she’s not gobbled up voraciously by the Hollywood “sameness” wood chipper. Feeling like an embarrassing nothing, she is determined to achieve her painfully sweet and simple goals soon. These are things like “have a best friend.” As she fumbles and mumbles, the film ambles towards a resolution that is less joyful epiphany and more realistic comfort: Even if things aren’t okay, they’ll be okay.
To be certain, Eighth Grade is steeped in a specific kind of youthful privilege. This is a movie by and for people paralyzed by whether or not they had someone to talk to at a pool party and not people afraid a white passerby might call the cops on their pool party for no reason. Assuming the straight, white coming-of-age story is a universal touchstone is part of the braggy hubris that makes the genre stale and rank. For me, Eighth Grade’s frank and meticulous awkward honesty helps it bungle through that hurdle, although those who would criticize the specificity of its target audience have a hell of a point.
The days that have followed my first viewing—there will be many more—have been filled with me sampling dialogue in everyday conversations, sharing long-secret stories of youth and using the film’s message as a means to comfort myself and others during a time when permanent nervousness has been gerrymandered from the “exception” district to the “norm” district. Eighth Grade may legitimately be the last movie in this genre to ever stun me and move me like it did. God dammit, Bo Burnham.
Grade = A