At a few points in “Eighth Grade,” Bo Burnham’s sharp, sensitive and enormously affecting new movie, you might feel the urge to snatch the phone out of someone’s hand and hurl it against the wall. (No, not the guy texting in the seat next to you, although you have my blessing.) I’m thinking mainly of the scene in which a shy middle schooler named Kayla Day (a terrific Elsie Fisher) bravely initiates a casual conversation with two popular girls in her class. They offer one-word replies and keep their eyes on their phones, hoping to get this strained interaction over with as quickly as possible.
The girls aren’t bullies; they regard Kayla not with hatred so much as embarrassment and indifference. In their still-developing young minds, ignoring this desperate loser might be the kindest thing they could do. They’re wrong, and on more than one count. Kayla may be shy, self-conscious and tongue-tied — hardly a rare condition for a kid her age — but it doesn’t take more than a few seconds for us to see how, like, totally not a loser she really is.
Sadly, the only other person in Kayla’s world who sees this doesn’t count: It’s her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who has raised her alone for many years, and who keeps her hooked up to a steady IV drip of affection. He’s understanding enough to know that his daughter is at that moody age when a parent is the last person you’d want to confide in. But whenever Mark gently reaches across the generational chasm (“I think you’re so cool,” he gushes at the dinner table), Kayla scowls in exasperation and slaps on her headphones. She, too, isn’t above using personal technology to tune out the world.
One of the pleasures of Kayla’s story is that it invites us to tune out along with her. At once wryly observational and dreamily empathetic, “Eighth Grade” draws us back again and again into Kayla’s digital cocoon, sometimes cranking up the music to entrancing effect (she’s especially fond of classic Enya) and allowing the bright light of her smartphone screen to lull us into a trance. But Burnham knows that Kayla can’t hide from the world forever, and he spends the rest of this intimate, emotionally expansive movie trying to coax her out.
The story unfolds over the last week of school, though it could be any week in most respects. Kayla moves anxiously through the crowded hallways, talking to no one, staring down at the floor. (The camera often follows her from behind, as if it were stalking and shielding her at the same time.) She finds herself distracted by a good-looking classmate named Aiden (Luke Prael), though it takes some time for her to work up the nerve to talk to him.
She’s voted the “most quiet” girl in her class, which is of course the most mortifying public recognition a quiet girl could receive. The thing is, Kayla isn’t even really that quiet. It’s just that precious few people have taken the time to get to know her and unleash her inner chatterbox. At home, she records personal videos for her YouTube channel, where she doles out enthusiastic, stammering advice on subjects like “being yourself” and “having confidence.”
Kayla, needless to say, isn’t great at taking her own advice. The deeper irony here is that Burnham, a 27-year-old actor, musician and comedian making his writing-directing debut, himself came to fame as a teenage YouTube star, earning millions of clicks and stirring occasional controversy with his satirical, smart-alecky videos.
One of the key themes of “Eighth Grade” is the degree to which the Internet has warped, and tainted, the experience of growing up. Middle school may be one of those universally crummy experiences, when life is cruel and kids are crueler. But most of us were at least fortunate enough to endure it without having to worry about the specific humiliations of social media, to say nothing of the temptations of sexting and online pornography, to name a few of the issues that the story brushes up against.
But if Burnham at times seems to be biting the hand that feeds him, he happily manages to do so without wagging his own finger. “Eighth Grade” never feels like a simplistic broadside against technology, bullying, helicopter parenting or any other issues of the week. Nor does it traffic in either the bright, mock-Darwinian humor of “Mean Girls” (2004) or the corrosively dark comedy of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995), to name two very different generationally beloved portraits of adolescent girlhood. More than anything, this emotionally unsparing but never-punishing movie feels like the work of someone who kept his eyes and ears wide open.
There’s a touch of the cultural anthropologist to Burnham’s approach. Some of his throwaway observations, like the shot of a kid sniffing a highlighter pen in class, feel like something out of a wildlife documentary. His approach surely accounts for the movie’s remarkably naturalistic ear for dialogue; it’s been a while since I’ve heard a screenplay so fully master the awkward, hesitant rhythms of everyday teen-speak. (Speaking of language: The expletives in the dialogue are almost certainly what triggered a ridiculous R rating for one of the few theatrical releases it would actually benefit teenagers to seek out.)
Burnham and his ensemble pay careful attention to the placement of every “uh,” “like” and “you know,” a touch that never feels like mannerism or overwhelms the characters’ distinct speech patterns. Among the young actors making strong impressions here are Emily Robinson, Imani Lewis and Daniel Zolghadri as three high school students who briefly take Kayla under wing, and Jake Ryan as Gabe, a smart, easygoing kid who genuinely seems to enjoy Kayla’s company.
The viewer is likely to feel similarly, which is no small credit to Fisher’s funny, watchful and utterly persuasive performance. Kayla may be the kind of person no one seems to notice, but Burnham gives us no choice: He and his cinematographer, Andrew Wehde, bring the camera so close to Kayla that we can register every nervous laugh, every deer-in-the-headlights stare, every bad flareup of acne. And Fisher neither wilts under the camera’s scrutiny nor succumbs to the temptation to stare it down. She gives precise form and delicate feeling to emotions and experiences that, despite the specificity of the circumstances, most everyone will recognize.
It’s amazing how little and how much can happen in a week, or even a moment. Kayla goes to a pool party where almost everyone, including the birthday girl, ignores her. She sings karaoke. She nearly gets herself into trouble, but is quick to assert and protect herself. She mourns the loss of childhood, but realizes that even the biggest setbacks will soon be distant memories. She realizes, not a minute too soon, that her dad is actually pretty cool. It’s in the subtle braiding of these moments, of the banal and the revelatory, that the truth of this lovely, heartbreaking movie quietly asserts itself: It’s all no big deal, and it all adds up to everything.
Rating: R, for language and some sexual material
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Opens July 13 at the Landmark, West Los Angeles