The deeper we fall into the moral abyss of the Trump era, the more audiences are drawn to celebrations of simple kindness and unassuming empathy. Suddenly Mister Rogers, never less than admirable, is a superman: a public figure who understands, and says, that seemingly small victories can be hard. His attitude is the opposite of Trump’s bullying mockery, tempting his opponents to act as cowed and desperate as he portrays them.
Eighth Grade, which may become the most beloved movie of 2018, is deeply empathetic and profoundly hopeful. It’s being celebrated for its intuitive understanding of smartphone youth (writer/director Bo Burnham is a YouTube star), but its insights are bigger than that. Burnham understands that bullying doesn’t always look like Nelson Muntz or Regina George. The two biggest bullies confronting Kayla (Elsie Fisher) are a popular girl who simply ignores her and a boy who tries to gaslight her into taking her shirt off.
The setting is unmistakably the present day — there are active-shooter drills at Kayla’s school (“we’d like to thank the volunteers from the drama club”), and her crush perks up at the mention of nude selfies — but Kayla’s dilemma will be recognizable to anyone who’s ever been a tween. She just needs to, deep breath, put herself out there.
There are plenty of YouTube tutorials on how to cultivate self-confidence, and touchingly, Kayla posts her own tutorials in the spirit of fake-it-til-you-make-it. Burnham portrays her videos as the latter-day equivalent of pep talks into the mirror. Watch how she stages a selfie: she knows she needs to put some care into it, but she knows she can’t be Hailey Baldwin. It’s kind of like applying makeup, which she does with the assistance of YouTube tutorials.
One reason cineastes will flip for Eighth Grade (it already has Oscar buzz) is that Burnham artfully uses the medium to draw a distinction between Kayla’s IRL perspective and her online existence. The movie opens with a pixelated close-up of one of Kayla’s videos (always capped with her charmingly awkward signature sign-off, “Gucci!”). When we follow Kayla out into the real world, though, we see her and her peers in tender big-screen detail.
The movie’s showpiece scene is set at a pool party, where Kayla steps out onto a patio to be confronted with all the classmates whose Instagram photos she’s been scrolling through. In a series of sun-lit close-ups, Burnham captures the stage of life where kids ride their newly post-pubescent bodies like two-wheelers with training wheels: they know they’re growing up, but they readily default to the goofy games and simpler preoccupations of childhood.
When Kayla’s on her phone, she listens not to Maroon 5 or Drake but, un-ironically, to Enya. That tone of timeless, floating sincerity is mirrored in a score by Anna Meredith, a brilliant composer whose transition to film scoring was happily inevitable.
The film’s key relationship is that of Elsie with herself, but her single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), is the other most important person in her life. Consistent with the film’s aesthetic, Burnham makes Mark completely unexceptional. He’s a loving dad, trying to do that impossible dance of parenting an adolescent: staying close enough to support and guard, keeping enough distance to allow them to grow.
Hamilton gets a big speech that had the audience I saw Eighth Grade with ugly-crying as though they were at Titanic — but what’s remarkable is just how mundane it is. There are no stirring turns of phrase, no profound insights. Mark doesn’t even have tears rolling down his own face. He’s just a dad, trying as best he can to explain to his daughter why he loves her. He doesn’t have great words to express it, because, well, he’s not a YouTube star. Neither are you, probably, and Eighth Grade suggests that Burnham got where he is because he understands his audience.
Fisher’s breakout performance is doubly apt, given that her biggest onscreen role to date has been that of Agnes in the animated Despicable Me movies. Her unassuming performance is core to the unexpectedly powerful effect of this understated film, and at its touching conclusion Kayla suggests that she has an enviable sense of perspective on a fraught age. Would that we all did.