EIGHTH GRADE is the coming-of-age film all others aspire to be. It injects you with a cringe similar to watching a principal dab. It makes your cheeks burn with laughter as if they’ve been tossed in a bonfire. And it makes your heart shatter like an iPhone thrown across a room. (Yes, these all happen in the film.)

A Lot Can Happen In a Week…

It’s Kayla’s last week of eighth grade. She faces a series of social hurdles, each of which feels like the biggest deal in the world — which is exactly how it is in middle school. She tries to get in with the cool crowd, pushes away her loving dad, and navigates a crush on a sexually mature airhead in her class. Friendless and voted “most quiet” by her peers, Kayla is desperate for a connection.

In the meantime, she turns to social media, scrolling through Instagram, taking pictures on Snapchat, and recording grainy videos for her unwatched YouTube channel. There, she shares advice on topics like “How to Be Confident,” hilariously stuttering and struggling to articulate herself like most middle schoolers. (A rare sight on screen, when most films feature kids with TED-talk-level oratorical abilities.)

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Courtesy of A24.

Bo Burnham’s Experiences

Writer and director Bo Burnham, a former comedian, tackled the experience of being an outcast in his 2013 song “Nerds.” He explored the superficial, irrational nature of pursuing popularity in his MTV show Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous. He himself found fame after his shocking and clever comedy songs went viral on YouTube.

As a result, Burnham creates a refreshingly realistic and honest portrayal of a lonely adolescence in the digital world. Even though, of course, he’s not an eighth-grade girl.

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Writer-director Bo Burnham and lead actress Elsie Fisher on set. Courtesy of A24.

At the Atlanta Film Festival, I asked Burnham and Elsie Fisher, who played Kayla, how they related to her character.

“All the things she struggles with I feel like I still struggle with,” said Burnham. “She’s just probably more open and honest about her struggles than I am.”

“Basically what Bo said…We’re both anxious people,” Fisher told me.

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EIGHTH GRADE Transports You

Everyone who watches EIGHTH GRADE will identify with Kayla, except for maybe psychopaths. The moments of crushing anxiety, unbearable awkwardness, and edge-of-tears embarrassment that Kayla goes through are heartbreaking essentials of the human experience.

Sure, the hurdles in EIGHTH GRADE are small potatoes compared to those in most feature films. But the film grows them to feel like the painful, traumatizing thirteen-year-old experiences they really are — and reminds us that we’re not alone.

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Kayla failing miserably at winning over her crush. Courtesy of A24.

There’s a scene where Kayla, in a green one-piece, stands behind a glass door, about to enter the pool party in a popular classmate’s manicured backyard. But gathering the courage to walk through the door is not that simple. Electronic music roars loudly. The camera zooms away from Kayla’s somber face until it becomes a small, sad point in the middle of a boisterous party. Her chest-tightening anxiety becomes every bit yours. Like the rest of the film, several comic moments follow to release it — although traces of her distress still linger in the pit of your stomach.

With books, you can literally read a character’s mind. Characters in film, however, can feel more unreachable because only what is on the outside is visible. This isn’t a problem in EIGHTH GRADE. The audio of Kayla’s YouTube videos ingeniously functions as voiceover narration, conveying her worry and insecurity even though her words say otherwise. And the score, composed by Anna Meredith, adds a fourth dimension to the film. Heart-pounding, ear-shattering electronic music and nostalgic, chilling vocals provide a surprisingly visceral experience, dropping audiences straight into the battlefield of emotions running through Kayla’s mind.

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It’s Incredibly Funny

There’s the urge to cover your face at cringy and distressing moments. But there’s also the urge to soak up every visual on screen to not miss any of the jokes. I can’t remember laughing as much in any other film.

What’s distinct about EIGHTH GRADE — and part of what makes it so real — is that there are absolutely no one-liners, no memorable bits of dialogue. The jokes are realized not on paper, but on screen: in the disconnections between characters, in the actions that are far too mature or immature for the person doing them (a long scene where Kayla tries to teach herself how to give blow job is particularly memorable), in the contrast between what Kayla says and what happens.

They don’t sound funny, but they work every time. Every few minutes — sometimes seconds — the audience I was a part of would erupt in laughter, applause, or both.

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Social media is fake, Y’all. Courtesy of A24.

Elsie Fisher is Spot-On As Kayla

Most of this is due to Elsie Fisher’s perfectly awkward and vulnerable performance. The DESPICABLE ME star makes Kayla endlessly relatable. She transforms a quiet, overlooked eighth-grade girl into a charming, lovable lead you want badly to hug and comfort.

Burnham has remarked in Q&As that he meticulously plotted every “um” and “like” and stutter in his script, which is most noticeable when Kayla records videos on her laptop camera. Fisher executes her inarticulateness well, carrying an insecurity and uncertainty that suggest Kayla struggles to express more than her trite YouTube advice.

Eighth grade was a turbulent roller coaster for most people. The film — joyous and heartbreaking, innocent and dirty, lighthearted and dark — reflects this incredibly well. Life is horrible and nerve-wracking and pitiful sometimes, but EIGHTH GRADE reminds us it will inevitably rise back up.

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