Meet Kayla. She’s smart and funny and nice, but is also insecure about all of the above — thanks to the daily bombardment of peer pressure and social-media expectations. In short, she’s the most realistic 13-year-old you have seen on a movie screen in ages — and writer-director Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” captures her awkward failures and quiet triumphs beautifully.
Played by Elsie Fisher — whose previous claim to fame was voicing Agnes, the youngest foster child of Gru in “Despicable Me” and “Despicable Me 2” — Kayla spends a lot of time in her bedroom, recording confidence-boosting videos on her largely ignored YouTube channel. The videos show a level of self-esteem she doesn’t have. She has few friends at her middle school, where she has been voted “most quiet” in the final week of school.
So Kayla is thrilled that she’s been invited to a pool party by a popular girl, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), not knowing the invitation was given reluctantly, at the insistence of Kennedy’s mom. At the party, Kayla fights off an anxiety attack long enough to go for a swim, where she meets Kennedy’s nerdy cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan). She also learns that Aiden (Luke Prael), the boy on whom she has had a crush, has recently dumped his girlfriend — because she wouldn’t send him nude photos.
Meanwhile, Kayla takes part in a shadow program with a high-school senior, Olivia (Emily Robinson). She even hangs out with Olivia and her friends at the mall — though the fun is interrupted when Kayla spots her dad (Josh Hamilton) spying on her.
Burnham, a stand-up comedian with his own YouTube following, makes a masterful debut as a filmmaker. He captures the slings and arrows of adolescence, the high drama felt by not-quite-adults who still think everything is a matter of life and death, with an astonishing amount of empathy. He finds great humor in Kayla’s social stumbles, but also makes us feel the discomfort at her just-barely burgeoning sexuality. (Fair warning: The movie’s R rating is for “language and some sexual material,” but it’s all talk.)
Throughout the film, Burnham employs Fisher not only as a performer but as his technical advisor on living as an adolescent girl. There’s a feeling of true collaboration between actor and filmmaker, working together to talk about the complexities of growing up in a fresh, honest and funny way. The result is a movie that will make viewers laugh and wince, and a star-making performance that will win the audience’s heart.
Opened July 13 in select cities; opens Friday, July 27, in more cities, including at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and the Century 16 (South Salt Lake City). Rated R for language and some sexual material. 93 minutes.