Tween heaven and hell

'Eighth Grade' captures the awkwardest time

Pool parties and mall hangouts, first crushes and first dates. From the ridiculous to the sublime, being an eighth grader means more angst than one might recognize at first blush. Add the accelerant of social media -- with its illusions of perfection and demands for "likes" -- and it's a wonder a kid doesn't burn out before childhood fades away. Writer-director Bo Burnham keenly observes all of the above and more in his feature filmmaking debut, the comedy-drama "Eighth Grade."

Burnham, better known as a stand-up comedian and actor, cut his teeth on YouTube at age 15, and his ambivalence about digital platforms and social media lends "Eighth Grade" much of its satirical edge. Burnham wisely takes an earnest, heartfelt approach to the story of 13-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) as she stumbles through her last week of middle school. With Fisher's endearingly open face projecting every insecurity along the way, Kayla's journey of baby-steps self-empowerment resonates.

Burnham frames that journey through a series of motivational YouTube videos authored by Kayla, which subtly grow in insight and articulation as the girl gains valuable, if at times harrowing, experience. Pegged as "Most Quiet" by her school and given to anxiety attacks, Kayla takes victories where she can get them in finding her voice, first alone and then in public. A shadow day allows Kayla to hang with the big kids, to her benefit and peril. Encounters with a middle-school crush (Luke Prael) test the girl's knowledge and ethical resolve when it comes to sexual practices, while hypotheticals turn alarming in an all-too-real #metoo scenario.

It's common knowledge that children clam up on parents just at the juncture where, arguably, kids most need guidance in the treacherous transition to adulthood. Just so, Kayla keeps her loving single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) at arm's length and, worse, with her glowing screen always at the end of the arm, like a force field shutting out her best resource. As she leaves herself to her own device(s), we root hard for Kayla to find her way, to handle the mean girls and her own piercing doubts, to push through despair to that internal engine of hope.

It's not out of the question that Fisher's truthful and witty performance could get Oscar love -- she's that good. And her coach makes a likewise auspicious debut behind the camera. With crystal clarity, Burnham tunes in to each irony of adolescence: middle schoolers will nod in recognition (take them, despite the "R" rating, then have a conversation), parents will ache for Mark, and everyone else will find something to remind them of the obstacle course of eighth grade.

— Peter Canavese

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