The wince factor is off the charts — in the best way — in “Eighth Grade,” a masterful ode to one of life’s most universally awkward phases.
“It’s like, being yourself is hard,” says Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in one of her many YouTube videos, a self-help-style series that elicits next to no clicks and belies her real life, where she slouches along with a huge backpack, greasy hair and a smattering of chin acne, trying to make herself invisible.
Writer-director Bo Burnham, in his feature debut, skillfully intertwines the timeless aspects of adolescent humiliation and the very particular ways in which today’s tech has changed them. When Kayla makes a bid to befriend popular kids, they’re not overtly “Mean Girls” types; they simply can’t even be bothered to look up from their phones.
Fisher’s performance is so achingly vulnerable and so non-perform-y you’d swear she’s a newcomer, but she’s not (she voiced the littlest girl, Agnes, in the “Despicable Me” series, among other roles).
Josh Hamilton (“13 Reasons Why”) is genial and understated as Kayla’s single dad, trying to compete with his kid’s iPhone over dinner and withstanding her sniping to not be “weird and sad” as he drops her off places. His eleventh-hour pep talk will likely have you in tears.
Depicting socially awkward adolescence is a delicate thing: Burnham thankfully doesn’t overdo it with brutality, though a couple of sex-suggestive scenes may have you white-knuckling your popcorn. Overall, though, there is a pervasive gentleness here; it’s like the anti-“Welcome to the Dollhouse” (Todd Solondz’s dark 1996 indie about a gawky tween).
Burnham’s music cues here are also impressively on-point: The sexy, pounding soundtrack as Kayla spots a crush-worthy boy across the room seems channeled directly from the mind of a teen girl. As a viewer who’s been one of those, I came away from “Eighth Grade” intensely grateful for the movie’s raw honesty, and for the fact that I never have to be that age again.