There is not a single memorable line in all of “Eighth Grade,” Bo Burnham’s divinely excruciating feature film debut, which screened at the Ivy Film Festival Sunday night. But that is part of its magic. “Eighth Grade” is a film with a keen sense of the way people communicate. No one speaks in glittering, Gerwigian lines here; it is all banal tweenspeak. Burnham’s writing and directing triumphs by making this riveting, as characters fumble to say what they mean while uneasy tensions build around them, with whole scenes balancing on the cusp of a relentless live-wire awkwardness that will make you wish you could be subsumed by the seat you are sitting in. It is as miserable as it is spellbinding.
The film focuses on eighth-grader Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she nears the end of her time in middle school. She lives with her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), and likes making advice videos for her YouTube channel, where she delivers earnest lectures on topics such as self-confidence and making friends. In real life, though, she struggles with these rites of passage as much as anyone. She does not have any close friends and wins the dreaded “quietest student” superlative at school.
One of Kayla’s videos — on “being yourself” — opens the film. In it, she insists that she is not actually a quiet person; she just does not feel compelled to talk all the time. It is an obvious front for her own timidity, which is a key part of what Burnham explores. From the makeup she puts on before her “just woke up!” selfie to the uncomfortable cool she affects for the rare conversation with classmates, Burnham attends to the ways — both modern and timeless — in which Kayla constructs a public image. Behind it all, we see her dull reality, as she lies in bed and scrolls through Instagram for hours, intoxicated by images of other lives. It is an almost unbearably acute portrait of what loneliness and anxiety look like in a world where a frenetic, jam-packed Twitter feed is always just a touch away.
That said, much of “Eighth Grade” makes for delicious cringe comedy. Kayla’s interactions with her classroom crush, an airheaded and very pubescent boy named Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), are squirm-inducing and hilarious in equal measure. So too are the sexual investigations she pursues in hopes of learning something that will impress him; a banana may or may not be involved.
Her relationship with her father also starts as a source of prickly humor, though it morphs into something more poignant. Mark loves his daughter, but has trouble getting through to her, and Kayla shuts him down every time he tries. Hamilton acts the role beautifully; the barely concealed joy that wells up within him whenever Kayla seems as if she has found a friend is infectious and quietly moving. Mark just wants his daughter to be happy. Is there anything more pure?
Probably not, but “Eighth Grade” leaves room for a few more affecting relationships before its bittersweet conclusion. When Kayla goes to shadow a high school student in preparation for the next school year, she is assigned Olivia (Emily Robinson), a high school senior who approaches her with open-armed compassion. Olivia doesn’t know Kayla as the quiet kid with no friends — she just sees a girl who knows how to rock pink shortalls. For a day, that is who Kayla becomes. She is still a little nervous, but more than that, she is happy to be with people.
A little later, Kayla gives Olivia a call. She is hesitant to do so, thinking Olivia may have merely felt obliged to give out her number, but when Olivia picks up, she is as open and loveable as ever. As Kayla stammers out her feelings of loneliness, she starts pacing back and forth across her bedroom, and the camera follows her with breathless intensity. There is a giddiness that comes with letting someone in, and Burnham lets the image feel it as much as Kayla does.
His visual style throughout is similarly emphatic, full of decisive cuts, loud needle drops and the occasional slow-motion shot. Burnham may have started with little more than a webcam, but with “Eighth Grade” he becomes a filmmaker, full stop. Also coming into her own is Fisher as Kayla. It is not easy to make loneliness interesting on screen, but Fisher does it with humor and unaffected intimacy.
Not everything in the film works. As the film nears its conclusion, Burnham starts to let up on the fiercely managed inarticulateness of his characters, and tries to give them cathartic monologues that do not ring entirely true. And, for a brief stretch, the film starts to feel nearly gratuitous in its awkwardness. But so does life, sometimes. That is Burnham’s trump card, and in “Eighth Grade,” he plays it perfectly, digging into discomfort until he strikes something deeply human. It is too real — which is to say, of course, that it is exactly right.