A three-year trial run of social cues and hormones, middle school is inarguably the most dreadful rite of passage. The road to hell is paved with good intentions in “Eighth Grade,” the filmmaking debut of comedian Bo Burnham.
An intensely introspective performer who got his start through the internet, writer-director Burnham would seem well-matched for a story of smartphone-warped, soulful teenagers. But though good at heart, his storytelling is smothered by his personality, curating a primarily studious enterprise that measures and observes its saccharine fable like the contents of a Petri dish.
Attempting a metonym for the uncertainty of adolescence, the film transpires over an eighth-grader’s last week before graduation. During the handing out of class superlatives, the demeaning blow of “Most Quiet” goes to Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a reserved 13-year-old girl who posts advice videos for her peers on a single-digit-viewership YouTube channel. Her uneasy navigation of crushes, pool parties and her relationship with her father (Josh Hamilton) provides a secondhand embarrassment buffet, with the uncertainty of what high school holds hanging over every moment.
Always anchored to Kayla’s perspective, Fisher’s selfless performance emerges as a strikingly natural presence in an aggressively affected work. From the sporadic rhythms in speech to bashful body language, the actress’s portrayal of adolescent behavior is nothing short of vivid. In her vlogs, Kayla speaks at a rapid pace, tripping over her words, afraid to lose whatever viewer may be watching. Whenever her head rises to attempt a conversation in the hallways, the leap of faith feels utterly colossal.
But Fisher’s surrounding film ultimately rests on the laurels she creates, unimaginatively mining meme culture and the generational gap for easy laughs. Moments such as a principal dabbing or shoutouts of “Gucci!” have a whiff of ethnography to them, but their ostentatious tackiness at times hijacks the tone of entire scenes, lazily punctuating moments that are otherwise sincerely rendered. The teenage milieu never transcends being a put-on, one overly eager to cite banalities of our reality and flattening itself as a result.
Even worse, nastier gags are frequently backpedaled, emphasizing their awkwardness in the effort to get another laugh. Such abrupt shifts in attitude have all the humor of a child popping balloons at a birthday party: shocking the first time and then increasingly aggravating. This overused tool of comic whiplash is symptomatic of a split interest that can’t be reconciled.
Though the film wants us to find Kayla relatable, it also seeks to comically reward the viewer’s wisdom beyond her years. The results are terribly shallow.
With narrative contrivances leaving nothing to chance, Kayla is reduced to a pileup of redundantly articulated, instantly sympathetic tics. Each discomfort is a catalyst for growth; her father sits around like a Chekhov’s gun of heartwarming life lessons. Though she appears to be bright and passionate, the film refuses to let Kayla make a decision that shifts or complicates its schematic conception of her. It’s hardly fair for Burnham to pin her as a tragicomic emblem to hang his own technophobic mumblings and “think of the children” despair on.
“Eighth Grade” has all of the beats of a coming-of-age story while adamantly avoiding having any of the consequence of one. The incomplete catharsis that follows the degradation Kayla endures aims for realistic expectations, but its attitude more closely resembles acquiescence. There’s an attempt to find laughs and tears while rolling with the punches, but it ultimately remains resigned to each blow being a natural part of growing up.
Despite Fisher’s star turn, the film ultimately elects to dive into the peeved psyche of Burnham: an oppressive, uninteresting place to be. The parents are confused by their kids, the kids roll their eyes at their parents, but the filmmaker’s karaoke scripting is coy and all-knowing.
Holding its audience’s hand from the first jingles of its egregious score on, “Eighth Grade” is like watching Burnham shovel salt into Fisher’s raw wound of a performance to watch it contort and seer and prove that, yes, it is indeed a wound. Its façade of miserablism is uncomplicated and obvious, only ever employed to sell us on Kayla’s humanity. What a severely misled, counterintuitive approach to empathetic storytelling.