Elsie Fisher plays the sympathetic heroine of “Eighth Grade.” (Courtesy A24)

‘Eighth Grade’ is remarkably nonjudgmental, intuitive

Surely one of the year’s most notable writing and directing debuts, Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” gets as close to the heart, mind and soul of a young person as a movie can.

Some films follow thrilling adventures of lucky young people; others are about sad, cruel events that befall unlucky kids. Viewers witness from an outside place, cheering along or shaking heads in grim realization.

Pete Docter’s “Inside Out” brilliantly imagined the inner workings of a young girl’s brain, and now “Eighth Grade” does something close to that without animation. It feels wonderfully real, mixed with pain, joy, uncertainty and love.

Its eighth grade hero is Kayla (Elsie Fisher, voice of Agnes in the “Despicable Me” movies); “hero” is an apt term for anyone trying as hard as she does.

With long, stringy-blond hair, acne-blotched face and big eyes, Kayla first appears making a YouTube video. (Burnham arrived on the scene via his own successful YouTube channel.)

In her unerringly natural, unsure, searching way of speaking, peppered with “um” and “like,” she tries to give advice to those watching (not many), signing off with what she thinks is a cute catchphrase (“Gucci!!”).

It’s the final stretch of the school year. At school, where she is voted “quietest,” she has no friends, but she crushes on Aiden (Luke Prael), voted “nicest eyes.” He’s one of those cool kids who seems to have everything together. She works up the courage to speak to him during a school shooter drill — this is a thing now — but the encounter goes shockingly sideways.

In the movie’s centerpiece, Kayla is given a proxy invitation to the birthday party of Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), the most popular girl in school.

Burnham handles the scene masterfully. Kayla is rigid and terrified in a lumpy, green one-piece bathing suit, while everyone else at the party is having a good time; a traveling shot and series of staccato cuts turn Kayla’s first brave steps toward the pool into the stuff of stomach-clenching nightmare.

Kayla’s father (Josh Hamilton) — no mother is in sight — loves Kayla, constantly attempting to talk to her, but she pushes him away. He’s equally baffled and sheepish around her mood swings. In one powerful scene, she wonders if she makes him sad. His response is magical.

The movie takes a turn when Kayla spends a day at high school, assigned to shadow Olivia (Emily Robinson); they hit it off, and Olivia invites Kayla to the mall. But an encounter with one of Olivia’s male friends reminds us just how scary this world of being 13 can be.

Burnham never lets the material become shocking or heavy; he’s not speaking to adults about the surprising realities of children. He demonstrates understanding and sympathy for his heroine, and has a natural filmmaker’s command of light, rhythm, space and music.

Not surprisingly, “Eighth Grade” has technology and social media as a major theme; it’s exceedingly clever how it frequently juxtaposes the way things look with the way things are.

Early on, Kayla cracks her phone, but she continues to use it, sending hopeful texts and happy pictures through a unsightly hairline fracture. There’s an attempt to make everything seem peachy-keen, sometimes with little animal-ear filters, but life, especially at her age, is more about uncertainty.

Indeed, the biggest conflict in “Eighth Grade,” the scariest antagonist, is us, being too hard on ourselves. The miracle of Burnham’s film is that it understands, and forgives.

Eighth Grade
Three and a half stars
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Luke Prael
Written and directed by: Bo Burnham
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

BART study: Ending paper tickets would ‘disproportionately’ impact low-income riders, people of color

When BART eventually eliminates its magnetic-stripe paper tickets from use, it will… Continue reading

Police efforts to stem 49ers revelry in Mission District spark backlash

SFPD preparing for potential bonfires, vandalism on Super Bowl Sunday

First transitional housing project for homeless transgender residents opens in Chinatown

Project gives gender non-conforming a safe, supportive space to rebuild their lives

SF e-scooters burst into flames in Golden Gate Park, ex-contractor reveals

Photographs obtained Wednesday by the San Francisco Examiner show the charred remains of at least two Skip e-scooters

SF politico who authored vape ban takes money from JUUL lobbyist, returns it after media call

Supervisor Shamann Walton made national news after he proverbially smoked e-cigarette company… Continue reading

Most Read