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