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'Eighth Grade' Takes You Back

Sundance Festival hit is a sweet coming-of-age movie for all ages

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 34 minutes

Stars: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Catherine Oliviere

Director: Bo Burnham

Grownup audiences are flocking to movies with sweetness in them this summer, and you won’t find a sweeter, more adorable heroine than Kayla, the archetypal middle schooler in Eighth Grade. She’s played by Elsie Fisher (who voiced unicorn-obsessed little Agnes in Despicable Me), just out of eighth grade herself. She’s not as deep as Meryl Streep, but just as precise, rendering each halting, self-doubting yet stubbornly, awkwardly self-actualizing syllable Kayla utters (or mutters) with such authenticity that it seems like a kid’s real life unfolding moment to moment. 

Kayla is an aspiring YouTube star whose weekly videos give helpful “Life Tips for People Like Me.” Be yourself! Be confident! She has fewer viewers than Eighth Grade director Bo Burnham, who in 2006, at age 16, started making YouTube videos that have been viewed 228 million times to date. Now 27, he’s a skyrocketing first-time director hailed at the Sundance, Seattle and San Francisco film festivals. 

Kayla sounds confident on YouTube discussing “online friends versus life friends,” but she really doesn’t have life friends. She’s got an imploding personality and downcast eyes, and though she’s close to her devoted single dad (played by Josh Hamilton), she assures him that he totally doesn’t get her. It’s touching to see him try to pry her eyes off her iPhone at dinner, and eventually — even though he's clearly where she got her awkwardness — get through to her.

Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton in

Scott Patrick Green/Courtesy Amazon Studios

Elsie Fisher and Josh Hamilton play a daughter and her father in the coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade.

Voted "most quiet" at her school, she’s honored along with the popular kids who won "best eyes." Kayla’s dad worked on a project with the mom of her rich classmate Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), a mean girl who should’ve been voted "most disdainful eyes." But since parents are oblivious to teen social politics, Kennedy’s mom forces her to invite Kayla to her last-week-of-school pool party. Kayla would rather stay in her bedroom sanctum listening to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” and scrolling on her phone, with her own eyes reflected on the screen alongside her online friends’ eyes (a lovely, lyrical scene). But hey, she’s the one whose video urges kids to “get out there.” And besides, the boy with the "best eyes" (Luke Prael) has RSVP’d.

So in a scene that's as scary as one in any horror flick, Kayla dons a swimsuit, hunches her shoulders and braves the party. At social gatherings, school and the mall, she encounters the same kids everybody does — the braggadocious boy, the affectionate nerd whose eyes you overlook at first, the older girl who introduces you to her set, the senior boy you should not play "truth or dare" with in his car, the other boys keen to know how many bases you’ve gotten to before you know the difference between first and second. It’s all exactly like everybody’s eighth-grade experience, only nowadays social media rules social life, and bored students watch cops demonstrate school-shooting survival tactics while drama club kids portray the victims. The real drama is when the kids practice hiding under their desks, the perfect place to flirt for the first time with impunity.

You’ve seen it all before, in your life and on-screen, yet it’s fresh. Produced by Scott Rudin, who gave us Lady BirdEighth Grade is low-key but a comparable landmark in the history of realistic teens on-screen. See it with a teen, and you could have quite a conversation afterward. But it might be awkward.

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