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The first thing that stands out about Eighth Grade is the acne. Kayla (Elsie Fisher), the film’s 14-year-old protagonist, has bad skin. This may be common in middle-schoolers, but it’s downright rare onscreen. The teenagers of Hollywood vocally complain about pimples, but their faces are always blemish-free. Eighth Grade is all about the blemishes, inside and out.
The winning debut film from stand-up comic Bo Burnham (who writes and directs) is a study of Kayla, a typical teenager suffering through her last week of middle school, when the gulf between who we are and who we want to be seems desperately wide. She’s not an adult yet, but she can see it up ahead and is pushing herself to get there as soon as possible. So she stumbles over her words and almost never says what she means. She mostly looks at the ground when she talks, anyway. At a pool party, she’s the only one of her friends who still wears a one-piece swimsuit. Kayla’s insecurity is always palpable. It’s cringe comedy without the comedy.
The film’s deep empathy for the adolescent experience is a point in its favor, but it sometimes makes the film hard to watch. As the story begins, Kayla has decided to start “putting herself out there” in preparation for high school. She tries to make friends with some popular girls and has a plan to turn a cute boy into her boyfriend. But she’s not Ferris Bueller or Cher from Clueless, adorably scheming her way in and out of trouble. She’s going to fail, and it’s going to hurt.
That’s essentially the entire story of Eighth Grade. There is no homecoming dance or big game to serve as a climax. The film even skips her graduation ceremony, wisely and tellingly showing us only the moments just before it and just after. Without such externalities to drive the plot, the film succeeds almost entirely on the strength of its lead performance. Fisher is absolutely remarkable, maneuvering Kayla’s contradictions (she’s shy at school, but is effervescent when making self-help YouTube videos at home) with such skill that you never catch her acting. It’s the first time in a long time you’ll look at the screen and see someone who really looks, sounds, and feels like a teenager. It’s simply a life being lived.
It’s also the rare coming-of-age story that carries not a whiff of nostalgia. All movies are made by adults who will naturally remember their teenage years as a series of wacky hijinks and obstacles bested. It’s a way of justifying their present. These films are told in the past tense, but Eighth Grade is told in the present. Adults in the audience may know that Kayla’s courage amid emotional pain is laying the groundwork for future happiness, but Kayla herself has no idea, and the film stays painfully close to her perspective.
Without the benefit of hindsight, Kayla’s survival—in eighth grade, high school, and even in life—is not assured, and every bit of interpersonal drama, like when her father conspicuously spies on her first outing at the mall with some new friends, carries life and death stakes. Remember that? This is what adolescence feels like, and this is what we worked hard to forget. If Eighth Grade is sometimes too painful to be enjoyable, well, we can’t blame it for telling the truth.
Eighth Grade opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.