Here’s a question worth debating: how many movies about American teenagers deal authentically with the teen experience? There are certainly plenty, but most teen movies are romanticized, sensationalized, removed into genre territory, and/or starring actors who are clearly older than their characters. Not that such mythology need be a bad thing—on the contrary, it can be an enticement. It’s the reason manic high school comedies are most fun when you’re in middle school, manic college comedies are most fun when you’re in high school, and both get harder and harder to relate to except through nostalgia goggles. But how many of the American movies about “teenagers” capture the mess of day-to-day life as an early teen, where people’s most private confusions arc past each other, you have the self-conscious urge to lie about things you really don’t need to lie about, and it’s all mixed in with such mundanity that you may not really realize what you learned until years later?
To its credit, that seems to be at least partly what Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is going for. It follows the last week of middle school for Kayla, an awkward and shy girl at precisely the age it’s hardest to be awkward and shy. She has a loving, supportive father at precisely the age when loving, supportive parents mortify you. She bares her feelings for no one except a social media channel with almost no viewers. She and her peers are different from those who came before them chiefly because they’re blessed and cursed with the latest tech. And all the while, the new world of high school awaits.
Most of this hits familiar beats, like the same coming-of-ager with a new SnapChat filter, or an easy comic close-up on those millennials hooked to their phones. The misadventures of Kayla play out as a mixture of self-consciously cinematic performance and touches of offhand authenticity, and I suspect that teen movies will never buck cliches completely because none of us made it to fifteen without involuntarily becoming one (or worse, wanting to). But the gentle regard for its characters, and how wonderfully its actors handle them, wins you over. And it’s at its best when it veers into unexpected tonal territory—like a car ride that turns from liberating to deeply uncomfortable—or, staying true to early adolescence, shows moments of growth but refuses to come right out and settle them.
Unlike last year’s (superior) Lady Bird, I didn’t get to it before the hype, and it struck me as much slighter and less incisive than its indie darling reputation would suggest. It is a conventional film, made from the outside looking in, seeming to simulate an experience a bit too much and inhabit it a bit too little. Yet few news items over this summer gave me a kick of happiness like A24’s announcement that it would host screenings of the film for middle schoolers and not enforce the R rating. Thirteen-year-old’s lives are already rated R, and they know that better than the MPAA. And whatever issues of slightness inevitably accompany indie-darling hype, I approve on principle of any comedy that teens and adults can watch together, each fondly laughing at how little the other knows. In fact, I daresay it warms my heart.
Eight Grade was a toast at this year’s Sundance and is available to rent on VOD next week. While writing this, I realized that the class that just started eighth grade was born the year I graduated high school. Kill me now.