'Eighth Grade' Captures Awkwardness And Impermanence Of American Adolescence Elsie Fisher stars as a teenage girl about to graduate from middle school in Bo Burnham's new film. Critic Justin Chang calls Eighth Grade an "enormously affecting" film that plays like a documentary.


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'Eighth Grade' Captures Awkwardness And Impermanence Of American Adolescence

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This is FRESH AIR. One of the critical hits of this year's Sundance Film Festival was "Eighth Grade," starring Elsie Fisher as a teenage girl about to graduate from middle school. It marks the feature writing and directing debut of Bo Burnham, a 27-year-old comedian, musician, actor, poet, and former YouTube star. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: After seeing "Eighth Grade," Bo Burnham's enormously affecting new movie, you might assume that a lot of the dialogue was improvised. Most of it was, in fact, carefully scripted, which makes it all the more remarkable. It's been a while since I've heard a screenplay so fully master the awkward, hesitant rhythms of everyday teen speak. Burnham's young characters talk in long, rambling but more or less coherent sentences, each thought punctuated with a perfectly timed um or like or you know. The director approaches his subject - the awkwardness and impermanence of American adolescence - with an almost anthropological curiosity.

A few of his throwaway observations, like a shot of a kid sniffing a highlighter pen in class, play like something out of a wildlife documentary. But the focus of his attention is Kayla, an eighth-grader who most people don't give a second glance. Burnam does the opposite. He brings the camera in so close that you can see Kayla's acne and register her every nervous laugh and deer-in-the-headlights stare. As played by the terrific young actress Elsie Fisher, Kayla is sensitive and sweet. But early on, at least, she doesn't appear to have many meaningful friendships. When she walks through a school hallway, she keeps her head down, her eyes fixed on the floor. She's been voted the most quiet girl in her class, which is, of course, the most mortifying public recognition a quiet girl could receive.

The thing is Kayla isn't even really that quiet. It's just that so few people have ever taken the time to unleash her inner chatterbox. Only one person sees how cool she really is. And he doesn't count. It's her single father Mark, wonderfully played by Josh Hamilton. Whenever they're together, Kayla buries herself in her phone. And Mark's every attempt to reach out across the vast generational abyss meets with exasperation and fury. One such scene takes place in Mark's car as he drives Kayla to do something she's rarely done before - hang out with some kids at the mall.


ELSIE FISHER: (As Kayla) Can you not look like that, please?

JOSH HAMILTON: (As Mark) Like what?

FISHER: (As Kayla) Just, like, the way you're looking.

HAMILTON: (As Mark) Looking at the road?

FISHER: (As Kayla) You can look at the road, dad. I obviously didn't mean that. Just, like, don't be weird and quiet while you do it.

HAMILTON: (As Mark) Sorry. Hey, how was the shadow thing?

FISHER: (As Kayla) No. You were being quiet, which is fine. Just, like, don't be weird and quiet because, like, I look over at you. And I think you're about to drive us into a tree or something. And then I get really freaked out. And then I can't talk to my friends. So just, like, be quiet and drive. And don't look weird and sad, please.


CHANG: Like most of her smartphone-savvy generation, Kayla spends a lot of time on Instagram and Snapchat. She also hosts her own personal YouTube channel, where she posts videos of herself doling out earnest lessons on topics like being yourself and having confidence. She isn't especially good at taking her own advice. And nobody ever clicks on her videos, anyway.

The movie's fascination with technology stems from a deeply personal place. Burnam first came to fame as a teenage YouTube star, earning millions of clicks and generating occasional controversy with his edgy, satirical videos. One of the key subjects of "Eighth Grade" is the way the Internet has utterly transformed the experience of growing up. Middle school may be a wretched time for everyone, but most of us were fortunate enough to endure it without the added humiliations of social media, much less the temptations of sexting and online porn.

Fortunately, "Eighth Grade" has no intention of rubbing Kayla's nose in misery. This isn't a dark comedy of adolescent alienation, like Todd Solondz's "Welcome To The Dollhouse" or a harsh teensploitation exercise like Larry Clark's "Kids." Kayla certainly has her share of heartache. She attends the birthday party of a mean girl classmate who completely ignores her. She hangs out with some older high school kids, one of whom tries to pressure her into fooling around. But good things happen to Kayla, too. She befriends a boy who's goofy, smart and completely comfortable to be around. She begins to assert herself more and to recover more quickly from setbacks that she knows will soon be in the rearview mirror. She even realizes that, yes, her dad is pretty cool.

Burnam's style walks a fine line between documentary-like observation and dreamy immersion. When Kayla listens to music and looks at her phone, the director cranks up the soundtrack and zooms in on her Instagram feed, as though inviting us to get lost in her digital cocoon. The pleasure of "Eighth Grade" comes from seeing her emerge from it into a world that looks brighter and more hopeful than it did before.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at the LA Times. On Monday's show, Viv Albertine, guitarist and lyricist for one of the first all-women punk bands, the British band The Slits. In her 60s now, she's been married, divorced, survived cancer and raised a daughter. She has a new memoir, her second. Terry talks with her about what the punk aesthetic and anger from her youth mean to her now. Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


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