It’s hard to predict who will feel more disquieted watching Eighth Grade, Generation Z or its parents. Writer-director Bo Burnham, who rose to fame as an Internet sensation, skewers the very modern-day milieu that serves as his celebrity platform.
The film focuses on Kayla (fifteen-year-old Elsie Fisher), who is in her final week of eighth grade. Compared to a two-year-old “time capsule” containing Kayla’s once-optimistic hopes for middle school, eighth grade has devolved into an alternate reality of photo filters, web chats, and school-shooting drills. As the gaze of students remains firmly affixed to their phones, teachers and school administrators futilely try to relate to their charges by dabbing and calling things "lit." A personal invitation to a pool party isn’t official until it’s resent via social media, but definitely not Facebook, because no one uses that anymore.
For the quiet, awkward Kayla, that pool party is the scariest place on Earth. She plays out her idealized self via a series of self-help vlogs about the virtues of “being yourself” and “taking risks.” Her reserved offline personality is far from those aspirations, and she spends most of her time web surfing or pining for the acceptance of her brooding crush and her class’s resident mean girl.
Kayla’s single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), doesn’t know how to communicate with her, either. Dinner conversations rarely penetrate her earbuds, and Mark is apparently incapable of even driving her somewhere without embarrassing her. Kayla’s outlook brightens after she meets a nice, outgoing high school shadow, Olivia (Emily Robinson), who seems to forecast better days to come. But those cockeyed dreams are partly dashed once Kayla discovers that high school will only bring its own set of new problems.
The first half of Eighth Grade is borderline brilliant, a searing portrait of a social dystopia in which, thanks to the internet, everyone is connected yet no one feels connected. The latter half, which focuses more squarely on Kayla’s family and future, is more accessible yet less daring. Still, as Kayla finds contentment over bonfire chats with her father and a dinner of chicken nuggets with a goofy yet genuine boy, the evergreen lesson of Eighth Grade is that happiness is there if you know where to look.