Once upon a time, they called it Junior High School, that fraught and fretful gateway into the teenage years. These days, it's known as Middle School.
But even though the name has changed, and the advent of personal technology has altered the landscape even more, the excruciating angst of being 13 is the same for every generation — an experience captured to poignant comic perfection in Eighth Grade.
It's the first feature film from writer-director Bo Burnham, an actor and stand-up comedian best known for directing comedy specials.
What's most remarkable is Burnham's insight into young female psychology, and the eggshell-strewn minefield of parent-child relationships.
Working closely with his muse and co-conspirator, Elsie Fisher, turning in a galvanizing performance as a eighth grade girl enduring her last week of Middle School, Burnham zeroes in with tender precision on the special awkwardness of this in-between, unavoidable phase of life.
|Fisher and Hamilton: hopes and dreams|
Burnham never misses a beat of emotional truth, from the way loud metal music hammers in Kayla's head every time she sees the sloe-eyed lout she has a secret crush on, to her dependence on You Tube to explain the world to her.
One clever device is having the eighth-graders open shoebox "time capsules" they put together for their future selves way back in the sixth grade, revealing the nature of their earlier hopes and dreams. As dorky as Kayla finds hers (it contains, among other mementoes, a USB plug shaped like SpongeBob), its effect is to reintroduce Kayla to herself.
A late-inning scene when her well-meaning single dad (Josh Hamilton) haltingly reveals his own hopes and dreams for his daughter, and the young woman she's becoming, is wonderfully effective. Finally, Kayla's understanding of who she is, and her decision to stay true to her emerging self, no matter what, wins our hearts.