Eighth Grade ★★★★½


When you’re 13 years old, reality can feel mutable and devouring. A week of boredom and discomfiture can dilate into a dreary eternity. A passing moment of awkwardness can mushroom into a humiliating cataclysm. The mélange of roaring hormones and bewildering social dynamics that characterizes the transition from childhood to adolescence turns every day into an ordeal, and every misstep into a crisis. When it comes to representing this distinctive life stage in narrative cinema, there’s an understandable temptation to veer into grotesque miserabilism, by amplifying either the salacious ('Thirteen') or the cartoonish ('Welcome to the Dollhouse'). To be 13 years old is to exist in a perpetual state of semi-controlled catastrophe, and it therefore makes sense for films about that age to reflect a certain warped sensibility.

The quiet miracle of writer-director Bo Burnham’s splendid debut feature, 'Eighth Grade', is that it so effortlessly resists straying into such heightened territory. In telling the story of a week in the life of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) – a smart and spirited girl, but also one who is shy, gawky, and friend-deficient – the filmmaker achieves an estimable balance between realism and exaggeration. None of the tribulations that befall Kayla in 'Eighth Grade' are truly calamitous, and nothing that occurs is presented through an excessively distorted lens. She is, ultimately, a middle-class white kid with a good head on her shoulders, and the travails that she encounters during the film’s seven-day span are the relatively mundane experiences of millions of young teens: a pool party, a high-school tour, a trip to the mall, and her eighth-grade graduation. (In what is easily the most unsettling sequence, the film strays *right* up to the edge of an alarming sexual incident, but then, refreshingly, backs away from it when Kayla vehemently asserts herself.)

Burnham eschews both the sluggish banalities of excessive naturalism and the rosy gloss of quirky indie unreality, finding a middle way that is both grounded and emotionally evocative. Greg Berlanti’s recent gay romantic fable, 'Love, Simon', makes for a striking contrast. Although well-intentioned, that film blessed its 18-year-old lovelorn hero with such a charmed life that it ultimately turned Simon’s closet-related crisis into little more than exurban fairy tale straight from the CW. 'Eighth Grade', on the other hand, represents an authentic delve into the anguished existence of a 13-year-old girl – a precocious kid whose self-awareness about her own shortcomings makes her interminable awkwardness and loneliness all the more agonizing...

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