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'Eighth Grade' Captures Awkwardness And Impermanence Of American Adolescence

Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, a teenager voted the "most quiet" girl in her class, in the film, <em>Eighth Grade.</em>
Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, a teenager voted the "most quiet" girl in her class, in the film, Eighth Grade.

After seeing Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham's enormously affecting new movie, you might assume that a lot of the dialogue was improvised. Most of it was, in fact, carefully scripted, which makes it all the more remarkable: It's been a while since I've heard a screenplay so fully master the awkward, hesitant rhythms of everyday teen speak. Burnham's young characters talk in long, rambling but more-or-less coherent sentences, each thought punctuated with a perfectly timed "um" or "like" or "you know."

The director approaches his subject — the awkwardness and impermanence of American adolescence — with an almost anthropological curiosity. A few of his throwaway observations, like a shot of a kid sniffing a highlighter pen in class, play like something out of a wildlife documentary.

But the focus of his attention is Kayla, an 8th grader whom most people don't give a second glance. Burnham does the opposite: He brings the camera in so close that you can see Kayla's acne, and register her every nervous laugh and deer-in-the-headlights stare.

As played by the terrific young actress Elsie Fisher, Kayla is sensitive and sweet, but early on at least, she doesn't appear to have many meaningful friendships. When she walks through a school hallway, she keeps her head down, her eyes fixed on the floor. She's been voted the "most quiet" girl in her class, which is, of course, the most mortifying public recognition a quiet girl could receive.

The thing is, Kayla isn't even really that quiet. It's just that so few people have ever taken the time to unleash her inner chatterbox. Only one person sees how cool she really is, and he doesn't count: It's her single father, Mark, wonderfully played by Josh Hamilton. Whenever they're together, Kayla buries herself in her phone, and Mark's every attempt to reach out across the vast generational abyss meets with exasperation and fury.

Like most of her smartphone-savvy generation, Kayla spends a lot of time on Instagram and Snapchat. She also hosts her own personal YouTube channel, where she posts videos of herself doling out earnest lessons on topics like "being yourself" and "having confidence." She isn't especially good at taking her own advice, and nobody ever clicks on her videos anyway.

The movie's fascination with technology stems from a deeply personal place. Burnham first came to fame as a teenage YouTube star, earning millions of clicks and generating occasional controversy with his edgy, satirical videos.

One of the key subjects of Eighth Grade is the way the Internet has utterly transformed the experience of growing up. Middle school may be a wretched time for everyone, but most of us were fortunate enough to endure it without the added humiliations of social media, much less the temptations of sexting and online porn.

Fortunately, Eighth Grade has no intention of rubbing Kayla's nose in misery. This isn't a dark comedy of adolescent alienation like Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse, or a harsh teensploitation exercise like Larry Clark's Kids.

Kayla certainly has her share of heartache. She attends the birthday party of a mean-girl classmate who completely ignores her. She hangs out with some older high-school kids, one of whom tries to pressure her into fooling around.

But good things happen to Kayla, too. She befriends a boy who's goofy, smart and completely comfortable to be around. She begins to assert herself more, and to recover more quickly from setbacks that she knows will soon be in the rear-view mirror. She even realizes that, yes, her dad is pretty cool.

Burnham's style walks a fine line between documentary-like observation and dreamy immersion. When Kayla listens to music and looks at her phone, the director cranks up the soundtrack and zooms in on her Instagram feed, as though inviting us to get lost in her digital cocoon. The pleasure of Eighth Grade comes from seeing her emerge from it, into a world that looks brighter and more hopeful than it did before.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.