While we’re all taking the temperatures of the summer blockbusters and examining their contents for possible clues as to the direction of Hollywood, this season has also had a passel of great debuts by first-time filmmakers: Ari Aster (Hereditary), Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You), Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting). Joining that company is Bo Burnham, the stand-up comic who turns 28 later this month and whose scarifying movie about adolescence, Eighth Grade, expands to theaters in Tarrant County this week.
Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla Day, a 13-year-old girl being raised by her divorced father (Josh Hamilton, who is not to be confused with the similarly named baseball player). She spends much of her free time making and posting YouTube videos about being confident, without disclosing that that’s the very thing she has trouble with at school. It’s the last week of school before summer vacation, and when she gets back a video she made of herself two years ago predicting she’d be the coolest girl in school, it’s a crushing reminder of how far she’s fallen short.
Burnham films this in a lo-fi style, with much of the action being shot in the grainy video of Kayla’s videos. He has an eye for middle-school drudgery, as witnessed by his depiction of a dreary awards assembly near the beginning. There’s a thoroughly depressing scene in which the students are practicing what to do in the event of a mass shooting, made funnier and more depressing by the fact that the “gunman” is a cop holding a fake AK-47 and saying “bang” while the drama club kids overemote being shot. Anna Meredith’s candy-colored music nevertheless draws our attention to the insecurities and indignities foisted upon Kayla on a daily basis, and she provides a great whoosh of sound when Kayla sees a cute boy (Luke Prael) who has all the confidence that she lacks. (He also seems really, really stupid, but Kayla doesn’t notice this.)
The centerpiece of the movie is a scene when Kayla and other kids take a field trip to the high school they’re going to attend, where they’re assigned to shadow a particular student. The girl she’s assigned to (Emily Robinson) seems pretty cool, but after an enjoyable evening at the mall, Kayla winds up left alone in a car with an older boy (Daniel Zolghadri) who takes his shirt off and asks her to do the same and has no intention of stopping there. The scene is excruciating and gross and should probably be shown in middle schools everywhere, because it’s naive in the extreme to think that stuff like this doesn’t happen to 13-year-old girls.
Fisher, who’s best known for providing the voice of the youngest sister in the Despicable Me movies, does sterling work in the lead role as a girl who’s trying to project confidence even though she has noticeable acne (not as bad as I had at that age), and, as a pool party sequence makes clear, her body hasn’t developed as quickly as the other girls’ have. This is the best role of her career, and while you can say that she’s only getting started, the 49-year-old Hamilton also has his best role. He makes the most out of a scene late on when Kayla, at her lowest point, makes a backyard bonfire out of her childhood keepsakes and her dad somehow manages to say the right thing.
Some of my fellow film critics are making out Eighth Grade to be a document about adolescence in the Snapchat era — indeed, the high-school kids get into a debate about this very subject, and they’re blown away when Kayla says she’s had the app since fifth grade. Still, I don’t find this movie to be especially tied to our time or technology. Her YouTube videos make it easier for Kayla to put up a smooth facade to the world, but the actual experience of growing up is as difficult as many other girls have found it through the centuries. Burnham captures that teenage feeling you get that the world is a hopeless pit of despair, and at the same time he shows that it doesn’t have to be. Summer is always just around the corner.
Starring Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton. Written and directed by Bo Burnham. Rated R.