Bo Burnham’s coming-of-age charmer follows a 13-year-old (the enchanting Elsie Fisher) through a godawful final week of middle school. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
A coming-of-age charmer that aspires to be a junior version of “Lady Bird” (and almost gets there), Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” follows 13-year-old Kayla (the enchanting Elsie Fisher) through a godawful final week of middle school. She’s named “Most Quiet” of her class, and things go downhill from there: a cringingly awkward pool party; a conversation with a cute boy in which she misrepresents her sexual experience; an evening with a group of high-schoolers, with Kayla desperately trying to fit in; and a lot of angsty yelling at her well-meaning but befuddled single dad (Josh Hamilton). “Can you not look that way, please?” she erupts at her father, who’s just quietly driving. He tries to comply.
Eighth grade, as a character accurately notes in the film, is the worst of times, and you ache throughout for Kayla, whose attempts to be more popular are hilariously painful to watch. (To a cool girl in the school hallway: “I like your shirt a lot! It’s so cool! Um … I have a shirt, too!” The girl — who at 13 is already grownup-pretty — doesn’t even look up from her phone.) Alone in her room, Kayla records inspirational videos, encouraging her nonexistent internet audience to be themselves, to not give up. She’s confident there, but it fizzles when she’s among her peers.
Burnham, in his debut film, makes some funny observations about growing up in the tech era: A high-school boy claims to be of a different generation from Kayla, pointing out that “She’s, like, wired differently. She had Snapchat in fifth grade.” But mostly, with glorious support from Fisher’s symphony of awkward poignancy, he makes all of us remember what it’s like to be 13: to want to be different so very badly, to be in such a rush to get older that you don’t know how to slow down and breathe. “I’m really nervous all the time,” she says. “Like I’m waiting in line for a roller coaster, that stupid butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling. I get that all the time. But I never get that feeling of after you ride the roller coaster.” Someday, this wise film reminds us, she will.
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★★★½ “Eighth Grade,” with Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Luke Prael. Written and directed by Bo Burnham. 93 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexual material. Opens July 20 at multiple theaters.