If, like me, you have no unearthly idea what’s going through the mind of the average representative of Generation Z at any given time — heck, I don’t even understand millennials, and I am one — then Eighth Grade is sure to provide some answers.
This illuminating coming-of-age film is set during the last week of middle school, a three-year purgatory of anonymity and stagnation for 14-year-old protagonist Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher). Socially awkward, she lacks both a best friend and romantic prospects. She has no mother figure at home, just a single father (a pitch-perfect Josh Hamilton) who is supportive, embarrassing and corny in ways that dads can be. She is distinguished by her peers only by her inconspicuousness. At the story begins, she wins the most backhanded superlative at her school’s annual awards: “most quiet.”
She emerges from her shell through her online avatar, “Gucci,” in which she posts direct-to-camera self-help videos for a presumably infinitesimal number of followers. But get past all the unnecessary verbal “ums,” and “likes,” and her earnest dispatches are therapeutic, uplifting, even wise beyond her years. One of the joys of Eighth Grade is seeing her put her advice into practice in a series of challenges that constitute the free-flowing plot: an invitation to a popular girl’s lavish birthday party, by way of the pampered diva’s mother; a class trip to a nearby high school, where she shadows an underclassman for a day; a car ride with a high-school boy in which she suddenly finds herself living the reality of #MeToo.
The first-time writer and director is the musical comedian Bo Burnham, who established his notoriety the millennial way: by becoming a YouTube celebrity. But nothing in his oeuvre suggested he was capable of the suspense, the empathy and the total understanding of someone so outside himself. (While The New Yorker picked up on some biographical references in Eighth Grade in a recent profile of Burnham, the director has insisted to reporters that Kayla’s experience in the twilight of middle school was not at all his.)
Moreover, he’s managed to crystallize a generation in 85 minutes’ time. Everything that defines Kayla’s wired but cauterized cohort is there onscreen. Kayla’s life — along with those of her distracted classmates — is mediated almost entirely through apps, namely Instagram and YouTube, with Burnham aiming arrows of critique at the very targets that fostered his success. Once, while idling away time, Kayla pricks her thumb trying to scroll on a screen-shattered phone; like any addict, it doesn’t stop her from continuing. In a memorable montage, Burnham nicely symbolizes Kayla’s vicarious immersion by overlapping her eyes with the dozens of transient pupils that float across her smartphone screen.
As a pop psychologist might deduce, that same sense of digital closeness to the beautiful people has fostered, in Kayla, a paralyzing anxiety over her body image. This is expertly expressed at the fellow-student’s pool party, with Burnham lending a horror-movie soundtrack to a subjective montage of carefree teens splishing and splashing, like Jaws before the shark.
And in the movie’s most unnerving scene, Kayla leans against her locker, a blasé look on her face, while a faux gunman with a semiautomatic weapon pretends to kill a handful of her classmates — volunteers from the drama club — in an active-shooter drill. Filmed well before Parkland, the scene is notable for recognizing the ingrained everydayness of such an event. The kids have lived with terror for so long that this monstrous display has lost its ability to shock.
As for sex, Kayla encounters a world in which girls are expected to be not only open to the prospect but skilled at its components. Kayla swoons over her school’s swaggering winner of “Best Eyes,” a hollow vessel named Aiden (Luke Prael) who only acknowledges her presence after she lies to him about her oral-sex acumen. (Some things never change from older cohorts: Eighth Grade shows us that, as in the ’90s-set American Pie or ’80s-set Call Me By Your Name, fruit-based simulation is still the rage.) She also learns, in an agonizingly uncomfortable backseat seduction, that it’s never too early in life to be sexually harassed.
You can quibble with the amount of emotional growth and insight Kayla experiences in just one week, but it’s a disbelief worth suspending when all of the particulars of her journey feel so right. To this, we can thank Fisher’s performance as much as Burnham’s guidance. Sponge-like in her ability to absorb new information but vulnerable when faced with a daily deluge of drama, Fisher’s embodiment is undeniably real, seemingly driven more by intuition than rehearsal time. This is a film, and a character, to which millions will relate, on levels both instant and deep — possibly, even, from generations past.
EIGHTH GRADE. Director: Bo Burnham; Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Catherine Oliviere, Jake Ryan, Luke Prael, Daniel Zolghadri; Distributor: A24; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, AMC Aventura, and Regal South Beach