Eighth Grade opens at the Roxy and Southgate 9 Fri., Aug. 3.
In Eighth Grade, writer and director Bo Burnham depicts the female tween experience with such painful accuracy that it literally made me nauseous. I had to get up more than once during the viewing and pace the hallways of the theater, catch up on texts with friends, take deep breaths and steel myself to return. So far, the movie’s been universally lauded by critics, who are mesmerized by the film’s awkward realism, and most of all, mesmerized by Elsie Fisher as Kayla, its earnest, insecure and ultimately loveable protagonist. Everything you’ve heard is true; this really is the most realistic depiction of early teen angst I’ve ever seen on screen. Viewers are perpetually astonished by Kayla’s realistic demeanor and speech, which includes a lot of likes and ums, age-appropriate acne, difficulty looking people in the eye and a palpable anxiety.
But like I said before, the movie made me want to throw up. I was the opposite of entertained. I felt like I was getting drilled at the dentist in the center of a middle school gymnasium with kids pointing and laughing at me while opening mail about a bill past due and also on fire — and so, how can I possibly recommend this putrid experience to you?
We first meet Kayla while she films a YouTube video for her floundering real-talk vlog. Today’s topic: Being Yourself. You know, like not doing what everybody else is doing in order to be cool or whatever. It’s the last week of eighth grade, and besides the school shooting drills and ubiquitous cell phones, not much has changed since my own middle school horror show days, circa 1995. Children this age are essentially hormone-spewing monsters, which we see in chaotic classrooms and school assemblies refereed by exhausted teachers. It’s like what Mark says to Dawn in 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, (pardon me, better movie): “High school is better. It’s closer to college. They’ll call you names, but not as much to your face.”
At home, Kayla’s raised by a goofy, well-intentioned father (Josh Hamilton) who practices infinite patience with a daughter who we are meeting at the apex of her cruelty. I know Kayla can’t help but take out her social frustrations on a father who’s done nothing but sacrifice and support her, and phones are more interesting than dinner conversations, but still, these father-daughter interactions are not an easy thing to endure.
What else is there to say? Everything else you’re guessing might be present in a plot like this exists: Kayla likes the hottest guy in school, who mostly (but not entirely!) ignores her. But let’s not discount the affable goof hanging out on the film’s periphery. There are end-of-the-year pool parties, bathing suit panic attacks and embarrassments followed by genuine triumphs. And listen: Put down your tweet, folks. I’m aware that this is empirically a good movie and I’m basically incorrect and maybe even cowardly for my inability to stomach these plaintive truths. But might I posit that perhaps our premium on awkward indie realism is just a tad high? When you strip away this one poignant element, there’s not a lot left to the movie but a familiar coming-of-age trajectory and pretty bland, forgettable dialogue. If you want to be reminded of the tortures of your youth, by all means, Eighth Grade is the picture for you. This summer movie season, you could see Ethan Hunt pilot a helicopter into a mountain to save humanity from nuclear holocaust, or you can watch a young person Google how to give a blow job. There’s room enough in cinema for all types of feelings.