For the past few years, comedian Bo Burnham has honed his stand-up to focus on his fundamental gaucheness. Interpersonal relations are something of a goldmine for Burnham, and it’s only fitting that Burnham’s directorial debut should examine the same concepts.
“Eighth Grade,” Burnham’s film, follows the final week of school for Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher, “McFarland, USA”), an eighth grader in a New York City suburb. Kayla is unbearably awkward (a familiar phenomenon for yours truly), as are many of her peers — only they’re well versed in acting 14-year-old cool, and she is a catastrophe of social anxiety. She half-whispers to people, she rambles her way through conversations. It seems the only place Kayla feels comfortable (to an extent) is on the internet.
In fact, Kayla first appears in pixelated form, because when you’re making a movie about eighth graders in 2018, the operating principle is to show their relationship to technology. Our protagonist and her peers spend their days listlessly scrolling on Instagram and Snapchat. At dinner with her single parent (a wonderful Josh Hamilton, “The Meyerowitz Stories”), she plugs in her headphones and plays on her phone. She has a YouTube channel where she uploads interpersonal advice videos, which punctuate the film as she cagily reflects on her social life. Her mini-lectures, covering such topics as “Being Yourself,” “Putting Yourself Out There” and “Being Confident,” feel particularly truthful because she stumbles through them, testing the synapses in her brain trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance of preaching what you definitely can’t practice (especially considering this human atrocity who amounts to her competition).
It’s one way the film carefully navigates between realism — lingering on characters, crafting perfectly imperfect language and dialogue, adults trying to appeal to students however they can — and formalism, which mostly comes in the form of explosive electronic music drops that get inside Kayla’s mind, and the high that technology gives her. The film’s depiction of technology use among teens verges on anxiety-inducing, but even more importantly, it’s insightful to how our addiction to our screens transforms school, already a center for boredom, into a mindless pit of mundaneness. More challenging to navigate is the film’s discussion of male sexual, let’s say, aggression, and Burnham’s careful depiction of trauma feels measured. A (somewhat) silent sequence of Kayla and her father is quietly heart-wrenching and departs from the film’s aggressively funny tone with ease.
But most of all, this film is funny. It’s cringe comedy to the highest degree; perhaps the best since Michael Cera’s George Michael tried to talk with his cousin Maeby in “Arrested Development.” Kayla’s whispered ramblings to her peers and her father are often hilarious, but the film seems to encourage laughter both at and with her. That being said, it’s hard not to ultimately feel affection for Kayla, because her pain and her struggles are so well-drawn, both by Burnham’s screenplay and by Fisher’s vivid and, one can only assume (simply because the pain of youthful awkwardness is universal, no slight meant to Fisher), personally experienced acting. One scene in the film’s conclusion, an awkward date between Kayla and an also maladroit — albeit overly confident — character should already be a contender for scene of the year.
Comparisons will inevitably be drawn to “Lady Bird,” another A24 directorial debut about female adolescence. But the better connection is to “The Edge of Seventeen,” which also envelops modern technology, single parenting and awkward relationships with popular people, albeit in high school. And just as “Lady Bird” and “The Edge of Seventeen” ought to be required viewing for everyone beginning high school, so should “Eighth Grade” be three years prior.