I’m glad that I wasn’t familiar with the work of comedian and YouTube star Bo Burnham before seeing his directorial debut Eighth Grade because there’s no telling how I would have initially received this engagingly modest film — which at times seems the polar opposite of Burnham’s rapid-fire, maximalist, sometimes politically incorrect style of aggro comedy. Part of Eighth Grade’s charm comes from a refusal to go for easy confrontations or humiliations; it keeps threatening to become a cringe-fest, but pulls back, as Burnham opts instead for something more human and realistic.
Entering her final week of eighth grade, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) wants to be something of a YouTube star herself. She makes little videos in which she offers up basic life advice, even though very few people watch her productions. In the real world, however, Kayla doesn’t really get to put most of her theories into practice. She lives with her caring but often flustered single father (Josh Hamilton), but has practically no friends. There’s a boy she likes at school and a popular girl who invites Kayla to her pool party. Later, Kayla connects with a friendly high school freshman whom she’s been assigned to “shadow.” But Eighth Grade rejects predictable plot points and lives on the electric edge of awkwardness and doubt that represents the middle school experience; you never quite know what’s going to happen to Kayla. The film earns its humor through familiarity, not shock. I found myself recognizing Kayla’s all-too-real anxiety and discomfort, but I could also identify with her father’s well-meaning helplessness. This guy Burnham might have started out as a somewhat annoying YouTube star, but he is now first and foremost a filmmaker.