Memories of middle school come flooding back in Eighth Grade, the promising feature directorial debut from stand-up comedian Bo Burnham.
A recent junior high graduate at the time of filming, Elsie Fisher is perfect as Kayla, capturing the precarious balancing act of being between two very different school environments over the last week of her titular education.
Eschewing easy conflicts and a standard problem-solving narrative, Burnham opts for a natural flow in which no great crises arise, but ones large enough to shake Kayla and force some serious introspection and action — as well as copious awkward humor.
Inexplicably without friends, the kind soul is steadily on social media and records advice videos for her under-subscribed YouTube channel, sharing brief naive yet poignant confessionals that make one want to hug and swear allegiance to her and also shed a few tears in her honor.
Putting that vulnerable emotional hodgepodge out in the world without much in terms of a safety net, Kayla navigates a crush on class stud Aiden (Luke Prael), whose piercing eyes are often comically accompanied by Anna Meredith’s energetic electronic cues that capture Kayla’s feelings.
She also strives to be friends with queen bees Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and Steph (Nora Mullins) — if they can be bothered to glance up from their phones — and generally be noticed by her peers.
For viewers able to recognize themselves in Kayla, both in hindsight and through current insecurities, plentiful laughs may be derived from these and other precarious encounters, along with extended cringe sessions like the school band’s improbably bad rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Not to be outdone by the younger generation, the adults of Eighth Grade likewise receive numerous opportunities to bring the comedic pain, be it educators trying too hard to be cool or Kayla’s devoted to a fault father Mark (Josh Hamilton), whose single parent status is somewhat frustratingly left unclear for much of the film.
Though Burnham’s focus is firmly on the central characters, the writer/director makes room for some subtle stylistic flourishes, primarily a nice slow zoom out at a pool party to which outsider Kayla is nervously about to enter.
Perhaps more moving, however, is a montage of her perusing schoolmates’ lives on Instagram, personality quizzes and other internet time-sucks cued to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” that says as much, if not more, about the superficiality and impersonal forces bombarding her than any scene with dialogue.
Welcome opportunities to sail away come via the giddiness of befriending high schooler Olivia (Emily Robinson), whom Kayla shadows for a day, and interactions with Kennedy’s socially inept but well-intentioned cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), but also the breathless intensity of an impromptu game of Truth or Dare.
Blended together, it makes for an honest and frequently heart-wrenching portrait of a period rarely covered in coming-of-age films, and one whose emotional truths set it up for relevancy even when the technology depicted has become defunct.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre