In the pantheon of superb directorial debuts, you’d be hard pressed to find a more unexpected and delightful entry than “Eighth Grade”. Directed by YouTube comedian Bo Burnham, he has fashioned an achingly authentic, poignant and emotionally resonant coming of age story for the 21st Century, grasping the truth of growing up in the 21st century in a way that no other movie has really managed to date.
Imagine the memory of something embarrassing from your childhood, in retrospect something innocuous, inconsequential and in all probability long forgotten by anyone else, yet the burning humiliation of the experience simmers on, years and even decades later. “Eighth Grade” is that moment, expanded onto the canvas of the big screen with uncommon tenderness and empathy.
It follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) during her final week of middle school, as she navigates the end of an era and the opening up of new opportunities and experiences – and risks. Kayla herself narrates the movie through her own YouTube videos as she seeks self-improvement by following her own advice.
Burnham manages, perhaps better than any movie to date, to weave social media organically into the fabric of his character’s lives. This is no mere gimmick like in “Searching”, “Unfriended” or “Status Update” where social media provides the mechanism to propel the narrative forward but more a way to explore the inner and public life of our hero and the differences in between.
The insightful writing and direction, the virtuoso camerawork and the careful balancing act between comedy and drama is grounded by such an astonishingly authentic and natural performance from Elsie Fisher that it feels like an enormous privilege to be granted this view into Kayla’s inner life. There’s plenty of amusement amongst the angst but the film never treats Kayla’s feelings with anything other than respect and while the film embraces the melodrama of teenage life and the comic potential of the aching embarrassment of well-meaning but clueless adults, there are many more moments of touching poignancy and genuine drama and one or two moments where you’re silently, desperately willing her to just get through the next few moments unscathed. It’ll make you remember how it felt to be that young, and probably glad you’re not.