Eighth Grade, a major critical hit and one of the most talked-about films of the summer, lands in a rather familiar genre: the coming-of-age movie. For the most part, films of this ilk have followed one of three narratives:
• The painful, rough-edged dive into drug use, self-harm and unhealthy relationships (think Thirteen).
• The heartbreaking angst of depression and ennui (think The Perks of Being a Wallflower).
• The revenge-comedy, in which the most unpopular boy or girl at school emerges as a champ (think Mean Girls).
But Eighth Grade defies those catagories. It's not like the sassy, acne-pocked teen comedies that fill many a Netflix cue. Instead, it's something rather extraordinary: a highly entertaining reflection of image-obsessed 21st-century adolescence. In fact, it probably has more in common with last year's Lady Bird, another breakout film that propelled its cast and creators to multiple Oscar nominations. Mentioning Eighth Grade and Lady Bird in the same sentence is about the highest praise I can offer.
At the heart of Eighth Grade (and there is plenty) is Kayla Day (14-year-old Elsie Fisher in a star-making portrayal), who walks the daily tightrope over a flaming pit of rejection. Indeed, Kayla has landed in that hellish existence that is middle school, as we all did (but telling her that doesn't ease her pain one bit).
Like most 13-year-olds, Kayla is obsessed with social media, hoping that somewhere deep inside that bottomless hole of cynicism she might possibly earn more "likes." In one scene, Kayla retreats from a soul-crushing pool party to an empty room. That's where she reaches for her smartphone as if it's a life preserver, but realizes that its screen has shattered into a spiderweb. As she slides her finger across the jagged shards, she cuts it. And as drops of blood plop onto the broken smartphone screen, Eighth Grade flashes a metaphor that viewers won't soon forget.
Apart from Fisher's stellar performance, it may be a surprise that the writer/director of Eighth Grade is 28-year-old Bo Burnham, and it doesn't take an eighth-grade education to grasp the irony of Burnham's own backstory: At 16, he created short comedy videos on YouTube, which have since been viewed over 228 million times. Burnham followed that up with wildly popular Comedy Central specials. In 2016, he was the youngest comedian ever to land his own Netflix special.
Some of Burnham's best screenwriting/directing comes in a pivotal scene as Kayla, upon ending her time in middle school, is handed a shoe box "time capsule" that she had created two years earlier. Crestfallen, she searches through all of the promises of happier days. The shoe box is self-addressed to "The Coolest Girl in the World." You might desperately wish (as I did) that you could drop one more note into Kayla's shoebox that reads, "It's OK. Eighth grade is not the end of the world. It just feels that way. Things get a little better. Really." Eighth Grade is that kind of movie.