I keep reading that “Eighth Grade,” Bo Burnham’s captivating drama about a shy but intensely aware girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who’s doing all she can to navigate her final week of middle school, is a movie that’s universal and eternal — one that captures the age-old zone of pimply bashful awkwardness that defines the moment of growing up, the moment when kids are teetering on the fault line between innocence and experience, childish dreaming and social networking, their identities stranded between two worlds. I don’t disagree with the praise; the movie is a minor marvel. Yet the bracing quality of “Eighth Grade,” the one that makes it pinpoint and artful, can’t necessarily be reduced to a common rite of passage that We Can All Relate To. A lot of folks who are showering the film with accolades sound like they want to feel younger than they are.
The beauty of “Eighth Grade” is that it’s highly specific and generational. It’s the first movie to capture, in a major way, the teenage experience of those who have only existed on this planet during the digital era. There are, of course, all sorts of films that portray teenagers glued to their text messages and Instagram posts, plugging into the on-line stream. What “Eighth Grade” captures is how the omnipresent digital air we breathe has begun to make a profound mark on our social structure and personalities.
The movie opens with Kayla recording one of the first-person video essays she likes to share on-line (it’s her way of connecting), and it’s only in those videos, with their consumerist wink of a sign-off (“Gucci!”), that she feels halfway confident and relaxed. The videos are her statements about life, and the first one is touching in a metaphysically topsy-turvy way, because it’s all about how important it is to be yourself, to be the individual you really are. That, of course, is the very thing Kayla feels uptight about being. Yet if this were just a movie about a repressed wallflower learning to come out of her shell and “be herself,” it would have fit snugly into the John Hughes era.
Kayla needs to gain confidence, all right, but the real problem she’s confronting is that the whole notion of what it means to “be yourself” is, more than ever, a construct derived from the forces outside of you. Anything that isn’t providing those signals is to be avoided at all costs. Kayla treats her dweebish single dad (Josh Hamilton) like a hostile alien, even though he isn’t a bad guy; his sin is that he’s a refugee from the analog era, so he has nothing to tell her that could possibly be of use. She sits at dinner tuning him out with her earbuds, and then Burnham stages a rapturous sequence in which Kayla retires to her room and surfs the web, with Enya’s “Oronico Flow (Sail Away)” on the soundtrack, and we feel the magic of those images washing over her. They’re the unreality she would die to live in.
Okay, kids have been hooked on images of alternate realities — “Star Wars,” James Dean, hip-hop bling videos — for a long time. But in “Eighth Grade,” the desire to escape into an official world of coolness that transcends the humdrum reality around you is encoded into every conversation and encounter. The film’s dialogue unfolds behind a complexly orchestrated thicket of “likes,” “uhs,” and “or whatevers” that becomes a prison of verbal armor, a way of talking that’s designed to keep kids from expressing their true thoughts and feelings. The one thing that everyone around Kayla wants to do is grow up too fast, and that’s how they use their technological radar. (At one point, a kid argues that your identity is stamped by the exact age you were when Twitter came on the scene.) Kayla longs to “be herself,” but in “Eighth Grade” “yourself” is what you’re no longer allowed to be. The one thing you’re allowed to be is “cool,” and that means hooking your brain up to the official memos of being and buying and doing.
Burnham, the 27-year-old multimedia hyphenate who became a star on YouTube, understands the you-are-what-you-signify mode of existence from the ground up. Yet he’s a humane filmmaker with one foot in the old ways, and “Eighth Grade” is the most gently lacerating vision of American middle-school misery and adventure since Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” (It’s also the most incisive portrait of adolescent social pressure since Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen,” though it’s about a character on the opposite end of the sexual-precocity spectrum.) “Welcome to the Dollhouse” came out in 1995 and has stood the test of time (though it now feels eerily pre-Internet), and Burnham, in a strategy that might have descended from Solondz, establishes a zone of privacy between the camera and his actors. He seems to be reading all their secrets.
The kind of squirminess that was a revelation in “Welcome to the Dollhouse” comes off as standard teen operating procedure in “Eighth Grade,” never more spectacularly than in the swimming-pool birthday party that Kayla is invited to. It’s a cool-kids event, so she should feel glad to be there, but instead it’s as if she was attending her own wake. She doesn’t speak the language of rowdy-acting-out-as-ironic-showing-off, and when it comes time for the birthday girl to unwrap her gifts, the present Kayla gave her is greeted with a silent scorn that makes it one of the most scaldingly memorable moments in any movie this year. Kayla has had the unspeakable uncoolness to give the girl…a game. One you could play at home on a rainy day. She has broken the dictatorial rules of digital cachet by being honest — pre-sexual, pre-media, un-consumer-culture — about what an eighth grader might actually enjoy. She has violated the taboo of all-coolness-all-the-time.
This is the level of toxic teen social pressure that Nancy Jo Sales caught in her eye-opening book “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers” (2016), and though “Eighth Grade” deals only peripherally with the phenomenon of adolescent sexting, the movie captures the overwhelming — and, I would argue, unprecedented — woe that teenagers today can feel, when the whole coruscating sail-away-and-join-me utopia of on-line signifiers, and the peers (that is, everyone around you) who are plugging into it, is telling you: This is who you have to be, or you’re no one.
“Eighth Grade” is one of the rare time-capsule youth films, because it depicts the world as it is — but also shows you, just maybe, that there’s a way to exist in the hothouse of digital communion and find a place in it. No phrase today is more dated than “mean girl,” because the snobbery represented by the mean-girl mystique is now a central aspirational cornerstone. It’s a mean-girl world — we just live in it. Especially a girl like Kayla, who the amazing Elsie Fisher plays with a beautiful tentative stubborn softness that says everything it has to between the lines. In its quiet way, her performance declares: This is where you’ll find life in the eighth grade, or maybe afterward — by tuning out the juggernaut of digital authority, and heeding the voice inside.