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'Eighth Grade' review: Achingly honest film about adolescence

Elsie Fisher stars  in "Eighth Grade."

Elsie Fisher stars  in "Eighth Grade."  Photo Credit: A24 Film

PLOT An academic year in the life of an awkward teenager.

CAST Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton

RATED R (adult language and themes)

LENGTH 1:33

PLAYING AT Manhasset Cinemas; Malverne Cinema 4; Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington

BOTTOM LINE An achingly honest film about some of the ghastliest years of adolescence. Funny, tender and endearing.

It would be easy to look down on Kayla Day, the teenage heroine of “Eighth Grade.” She’s a modern parent’s nightmare: nose in her phone, isolated by earbuds, an attention span of milliseconds. Her sense of social connection comes almost entirely from the likes she gets — or rather, never gets — on her YouTube videos, in which she waxes philosophical on a subject she knows little about: the world.

“A big part of confidence is being brave,” Kayla (Elsie Fisher) says in a typical posting. “And you can’t be brave without being scared.”

“Eighth Grade” does not look down on Kayla but directly at her, through the nonjudgmental eyes of writer-director Bo Burnham. Himself a product of YouTube — he posted a series of comedic songs as a teenager before launching his successful stand-up career — Burnham, at 27, understands that Kayla isn’t a problem child or a case study. She’s just a 13-year-old like any other, trying to figure out the rules of a new, semi-virtual world.

“Eighth Grade” is a coming-of-age film for a generation that is hipper and more sophisticated than ever, yet as naive and ill-informed as always. Talk of sexual activity ricochets through class — we are in the last week of Kayla’s last year before high school — but no one really knows what sex is or how it’s done. The mean girls are still mean, the hot boy is still a jerk (Luke Prael plays Aiden, whose dazzling eyes belie an average mind) and the nerds are still cooler than you thought (Jake Ryan is a charmer as the hyperliterate and chivalrous Gabe). Meanwhile, Kayla’s single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), oozes kindness and understanding, only to be repaid in eye rolls and verbal cat scratches.

It’s too bad “Eighth Grade” is rated R (there is some vulgar talk), because it contains a scene that ought to be required viewing for just about any adolescent. In it, Kayla unexpectedly finds herself alone in a car with an older boy. His predatory methods are shrewd: He uses his social status to intimidate her, then turns her insecurities and good manners against her. It’s a chilling scene, and given Kayla’s successful resistance, a possibly instructive one.

Thanks partly to a seemingly effortless performance from Fisher, an actress barely older than her character, “Eighth Grade” brims with empathy and compassion for a much-maligned generation of logged-on, plugged-in youth. They are, in the end, still just kids.

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