Movie review: Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is a gentle, surprising addition to the teen canon.

Bo Burnham is not yet 30, landing his own show on Comedy Central while still a teenager singing joke songs, like if Weird Al was a total prick. "There are many reasons to resent Mr. Burnham," wrote the New York Times on Christmas Day, 2013, the chief one being (in The Coast's current opinion) he's always been a nakedly thirsty and thoroughly mediocre comedian.

However: With age comes wisdom and growth, and Burnham is the one of the least likely people—that is, a straight white comedy bro—to have created a gentle, contemporary, surprising look at teen girlhood, but here we are.

Eighth Grade stars Elsie Fisher (the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me) as Kayla, a painfully shy but self-aware 14-year-old who longs for a best friend, a boyfriend and internet fame—she barely speaks in class but makes daily YouTube videos about confidence and being yourself. She wants to make computer Kayla the real one. She's being raised by a single dad (Josh Hamilton, with the lines Burnham would clearly be speaking were he old enough to play the part), who to his credit doesn't punish Kayla for her rude-as-hell behaviour, including wearing her headphones at dinner and screaming at him for "looking sad."

The film is a full-on cringefest, as Kayla puts herself and is put in situations we've seen a million times in teen films—"what are they gonna do to her?!" is a common thought—but to Burnham's great credit, it never turns where you think it will. It's a fine trick he deploys over and over: Familiar setup, surprisingly sensitive resolution. Fisher has a heavy load to carry here—wildly variant emotions playing out in extreme close-up and lots of interactions with a phone screen, places that don't leave a lot of room for impression. But her kind-eyed earnestness is cut by an uncommon self-awareness—Kayla longs to belong but she also knows why she doesn't. Everything about this movie is fresh and engaging. Do not miss.

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