Bo Burnham’s 'Eighth Grade' is a scathing look at adolescence filtered through social media

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Elsie Fisher in "Eighth Grade"
Elsie Fisher in "Eighth Grade"
Eighth Grade Opens Friday, Aug. 3, 4.5 out 5 stars

One of the internet's first crossover stars, Bo Burnham first "went viral" when his YouTube videos of him performing comedic songs in his bedroom started getting shared all over. Two years later, in 2008, he released his first comedy EP, Bo Fo Sho, on Comedy Central Records. He was 17 years old at the time. He's since amassed a following as a gifted comedian, writer, performer and director of comedy specials. So it seems almost counter-intuitive that Burnham's first narrative feature, Eighth Grade, is an indictment of social media and how it skews our perceptions of the world and ourselves, but here we are.

Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), an immensely unpopular tween, as she navigates the final weeks of middle school. Though Kayla updates her vlog daily with words of vague affirmation and advice for other kids her age, her videos have hardly any views. When superlatives are given out for her graduating class, she's bestowed the dubious honor of "Most Quiet," despite her fervent belief – expressed to her nonexistent online audience – that she's not quiet, just misunderstood.

Those who hated middle school – which should be pretty much everyone, unless you peaked super-early – will be reminded just how awful that period of life can be as Kayla struggles to make friends and figure out who she is in a time when appearances and popularity are everything.

That's always been true, but Eighth Grade highlights how the performative existence of adolescents – under so much pressure already to appear like they know what the hell they're doing – is amplified when everyone around them is focused on their online personas. It's one thing to be voted "Most Quiet," but at least it's acknowledgment. Zero likes on your last Instagram post? You may as well not exist.

That desperation for attention leads Kayla to get into some situations that she is simply not ready for, particularly in regards to trying to impress boys. These moments are mostly played for laughs, but the moment when she realizes how far out of her depth she's gotten is stone-cold, heartbreakingly serious.

Burnham gets a knockout performance from Elsie Fisher – heretofore mainly known for voice work in the Despicable Me movies and the English dub of Russian children's cartoon Masha and the Bear. It'd be easy to chalk that up to the fact that Fisher – at 15 – has gone through all of this herself quite recently, but her comedic timing and the nuance in her performance is so good that it'll be weird if it doesn't get acknowledged come award season.

"I think that you are so cool," Kayla's dad (Josh Hamilton, in a strong, sympathetic performance) tells her at the dinner table after forcing her to stop looking at her phone for a minute. Kayla rolls her eyes and implores her dad to stop, embarrassed by the sincerity. But sincerity is what Eighth Grade delivers, whether it's embarrassing or not. And by the end, you too will think Kayla is just so cool.

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