I’m glad that I wasn’t familiar with the work of comedian and YouTube star Bo Burnham before seeing his directorial debut Eighth Grade, because otherwise I’m not sure how I would have initially received this engagingly modest film — which at times feels like the polar opposite of Burnham’s rapid-fire, maximalist, sometimes-politically-incorrect style of aggro comedy. Part of Eighth Grade‘s charm comes from a refusal to go for easy confrontations or humiliations; it keeps threatening to become a cringe-fest, but pulls back, as Burnham opts instead for something more human and realistic. There’s a lived-in wisdom in the film.
Entering her final week of eighth grade, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) wants to be something of a YouTube star herself — she makes little videos in which she offers up basic life advice, even though very few people watch her productions. In the real world, however, Kayla doesn’t really get to put most of her theories into practice. She lives with her caring but often-flustered single father (Josh Hamilton), but has practically no friends, even though she longs to be in with the cool crowd. There’s a boy she likes at school, and a popular girl who invites Kayla — reluctantly, at her mom’s urging — to her pool party. Later, Kayla connects with a friendly high school freshman whom she’s been assigned to “shadow” as a form of advance orientation. Burnham doesn’t give any of these characters a prominent place in Kayla’s dramatic arc, however. I kept expecting one of them to demonstrate pettiness, or betrayal, or some other form of cruelty toward Kayla — or, conversely, for Kayla to turn around and humiliate herself in their presence.
But Eighth Grade rejects predictable plot points and instead lives on the electric edge of awkwardness and uncertainty and doubt that represents the middle school experience; you never quite know what’s going to happen to Kayla, and that feels right. The film earns its humor through familiarity, not shock. I found myself recognizing Kayla’s all-too-real anxiety and discomfort, but I could also identify with her father’s well-meaning helplessness. Among the standout scenes is a supremely hesitant monologue Hamilton delivers late in the film to Fisher, in which we can sense his character fumbling and fumbling to find the right words to say and then, shockingly, finding them, surprising both himself and his offspring. It’s a low-key triumph of acting, writing, and directing. This guy Burnham might have started out as a somewhat annoying YouTube star, but he is now first and foremost a filmmaker.