When I was young, a boy used to flip his eyelids up—exposing their red undersides—to torture me. I never failed to scream. My parents said that he did that because he liked me, but it was still a living nightmare.
There’s a brief shot of a kid performing the same disgusting trick in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival on Friday. The scene comes and goes quickly, but I had an instant flash of recognition the moment it happened. That’s the beauty of this movie. It captures with excruciating detail the horror of being a 13-year-old girl. The film is so accurate, it’s almost hard to believe it was written and directed by a man.
Eighth Grade centers around Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who’s finishing her last week of, well, eighth grade. In her spare time, Kayla posts vlogs in which she gives pep talks on topics like “being yourself.” Her vlogs are filled with little hesitancies—”likes” and “ums”—but otherwise she presents herself in them as someone who has all the answers. She doesn’t. Around her schoolmates, Kayla’s a shell of the person she appears to be on screen. She speaks so little that quietness is her defining characteristic.
Burnham—whose career first took off on YouTube—has a savvy understanding of the way social media has warped what’s “cool.” In fact, when Kayla does talk, “cool” is her favorite word and her guiding light. She desperately wants to be whatever “cool” is—even if it’s at odds with her personality. Or perhaps she just hasn’t figured out what her personality is yet. Kayla dutifully follows YouTube makeup tutorials and scrolls through the perfectly composed selfies of the school’s Queen Bee. She’d be happy if she could hide all the time behind an Instagram or Snapchat filter, concealing her visible acne and her social anxiety.
But even though Kayla is consumed with screens, her concerns are still relevant to viewers who grew up in a time when fifth graders didn’t have Snapchat. (Can you even imagine?) Eighth Grade brilliantly elicits gulps of horrified recognition as it recreates the experience of that first teenage year. Consider a scene at a pool party: The aforementioned popular girl’s mother forces her daughter to invite Kayla, and Kayla goes reluctantly. After changing into her bathing suit—an ill-fitting one piece, while most of her peers wear bikinis—Kayla walks through the performative fun with her shoulders hunched. She has no friends there, but is obligated to participate in the ritual present-opening and picture-taking. As the plot rolls along, Kayla’s main objective is to try and better herself so high school won’t suck as horribly as middle school.
Her journey has moments of humor (as one might expect from a writer-director known for his on-point musical comedy), but is also acutely painful. It’s devastating to see Kayla try to brag about her nonexistent sexual prowess to her dickish crush, a thoughtless boy solely concerned with access to nude pics. It’s even more heartbreaking to watch as Kayla encounters a high schooler who tries to pressure her into a hookup and then shames her when she refuses. For the first time, Kayla is experiencing what it’s like to be a woman in the world, and it stings for both her and the viewer.
But for all of the cringe-worthy moments—expect memories of bad skin and worse bullies to come flooding back—Eighth Grade is also a genuinely lovely story about a young woman not quite finding herself. Through a mix of camera work, an innovative electronic score, and Fisher’s stellar acting, Kayla proves herself a complex, deeply empathetic character—even as she tries to bury herself in BuzzFeed quizzes and Tumblr posts. I found myself wanting to tell her that it will be okay. I also thanked the heavens that I didn’t have Instagram in middle school.