'Eighth Grade' Review: The Agonies and Glories of Growing Up

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Watch a trailer for the movie ‘Eighth Grade,’ starring Elsie Fisher. Photo: A24 Films

Poignantly funny, wrenchingly wise and meltingly beautiful, “Eighth Grade” is a not-so-small miracle of independent filmmaking.

Bo Burnham’s

debut feature starts with 13-year-old Kayla (an astonishing performance by

Elsie Fisher

) talking straight to the camera during her last week in eighth grade. To the camera on her laptop in her bedroom, that is, since she’s doing a video for her YouTube channel on a topic she’s unqualified to discuss, for the benefit of an audience that doesn’t exist. Kayla’s subject is “Being Yourself,” but as a woefully shy loner in a constant state of disjuncture—early adolescence as shuffle play—she has no idea who her self might be, or where to track it down.

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Taking the film at face value—the pained, blemished and instantly adorable face of this earnest heroine—it’s a portrait of someone trying desperately to graduate from girlhood into a passable semblance of maturity. More than that, though, it’s breaking news on the timeless torments of growing up—a group portrait of dears caught in the backlights of their smartphones, of virtually connected, socially mediated kids who, in an age of infinite outcomes, remain stuck in their anxious present, with hardly a clue of what may come.

“Eighth Grade” would be special if it were nothing more than a string of Kayla’s wish-fulfillment videos. She does another on “Getting Yourself Out There” (doubly difficult, given little self-knowledge and no vision of any there that would welcome her), and still another on “How to Be Confident.” (Though she gives sound advice, that you can’t be brave without being scared, she has barely begun to move past the scared part.) But Mr. Burnham, a comedian and musician who first came up on YouTube, gets Kayla way out there into the thick of school society, with its rigid caste system—upper caste meaning cool and/or cute—and its endless opportunities for rejection. The filmmaker and his cinematographer,

Andrew Wehde,

are sharp observers. They flash on one kid savoring the vapors of a felt marker. Another twangs a rubber band on her braces. Whole classes practice duck-and-cover, not for fear of atomic bombs but in proactive response to the prospect of active shooters.

Elsie Fisher as Kayla

Elsie Fisher as Kayla


Photo:

A24

There’s a moment when Kayla, on an orientation visit to the high school she’ll attend, learns that she’s an alien in the eyes of her somewhat-elders; a soda klatch of 12th-graders agrees that she’s wired differently because she had Twitter and Snapchat at such an early age. That may tempt adult audiences to see all of these kids as downward-gazing aliens with eyes fixed on phones, ears plugged with buds and no common language with their parents.

Kayla’s father, Mark (superb work by

Josh Hamilton

), certainly has his problems bridging the gap. In some of the film’s most anguishingly funny scenes, father and daughter—Kayla’s mother seems to have decamped long ago—talk at each other from opposite sides of the screen in syllables ranging from mono to low-multi, but none of it constitutes a conversation. Not, that is, until loving eloquence pours forth to a degree rivaled in recent memory only by a moment in “Call Me By Your Name.” This new outbreak, which I won’t diminish by describing, goes on a bit too long, but it’s deeply affecting, and brave as a piece of dramatic writing given the risk of sentimentality. And most of the film was indeed written, we are told, even though it seems to have been improvised, or simply caught on the fly.

Mr. Burnham’s writing and direction deserve each other; that’s meant as high praise. The results aren’t perfect; a truth-or-dare game in the back seat of a car goes on so long that it turns into a scene, rather than a discovery. But the film as a whole is a revelation. It’s comical but never cynical, unsparing but never ungenerous, as well as therapeutic in the sense of making us feel better about the miserably insecure children we may once have been.

Best of all, “Eighth Grade” is lyrical in evoking the blinders of youth, and how it feels to start shedding them. Kayla can’t begin to imagine who she’ll be three years hence, let alone in an adult future. Yet we see her trying, on two occasions and with an exquisite purity of spirit, to reach out to her not-yet-self; both efforts, I must tell you, had me in tears. And the most dramatic sign of her growth lies not in something she does, but in something she decides to do no more, because it doesn’t comport with who she’s already become. What a girl! What a movie!

Write to Joe Morgenstern at joe.morgenstern@wsj.com