MOVIE REVIEW: TYLER WILSON - Compelling ‘Eighth Grade’ tackles middle school awkwardness

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Linda Kallerus/A24 via AP This image released by A24 shows Elsie Fisher in a scene from "Eighth Grade."

Middle school stinks. That somewhat obvious point rests at the core of “Eighth Grade,” a drama written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham, but the film stages several mortifying sequences to reinforce the idea. The movie will likely conjure repressed memories of puberty and all its awful intricacies.

What’s more impressive about “Eighth Grade is the specificity of the story. It’d make sense if the 27-year-old Burnham, who has no children of his own, made a movie about a boy in middle school set in the time period in which Burnham himself came of age. Instead, “Eighth Grade” follows a quiet, socially inept 14-year-old girl named Kayla who spends most of her 2018 existence fretting over her social media presence.

Kayla is played by Elsie Fisher in an incredible breakout performance. It isn’t easy to play such a meek character without leaning too hard into a depiction of sadness or depression. Kayla, even despite her social struggles, retains a level of self-worth and identity that makes her compelling and likeable. She records and shares stilted self-help YouTube videos as a means of boosting her own confidence, especially in her attempts to befriend the popular girl and woo the dreamy-eyed boy who sits in the back of the class. She mostly fails, but the nerve to try is what makes Kayla such a compelling lead.

Kayla’s single dad, Mark (a terrific Josh Hamilton), repeatedly compliments his daughter’s strength and character through some delightfully lame dinnertime pep talks. Kayla expresses routine outrage (when she’s not outright ignoring him), but Mark’s sincerity is genuine. He knows he has a good kid, and the movie makes special effort to depict Kayla through the eyes of her loving father.

Burnham’s approach to the material retains an authenticity that seems impossible from someone who isn’t a 14-year-old girl. A big stretch of “Eighth Grade” depicts an evening where Kayla goes to hang out with some older kids at the mall, which then leads to a tense and relentlessly uncomfortable confrontation in the backseat of a car. It’s such a specific and tightly constructed sequence that you’d swear it was ripped directly from some teenager’s personal journal.

Through all its scenes of awkwardness and social terror, “Eighth Grade” still retains humor and energy, and Fisher’s performance especially adds a brightness to the story. The film works its way to a hopeful conclusion too, and it does so without sacrificing its naturalistic depiction. And despite being so much about the all-consuming, impersonal nature of smartphone/social media culture, the movie doesn’t thumb its nose at the generation obsessed with it.

“Eighth Grade” is rated R for some language and a few discussions of sex. It’s a ridiculous and arbitrary rating, as this is exactly the movie every 12 to 17-year-old should see. Compare it to the violence and bodycount in something like the PG-13-rated “Avengers: Infinity War,” and it’s especially galling. Schools should dump those sex-ed documentaries and show “Eighth Grade” in eighth grade instead.

•••

Tyler Wilson can be reached at twilson@cdapress.com

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