NEW YORK (CNS) — From a moral point of view, “Eighth Grade” (A24), a low-key, moving blend of comedy and drama, is a bit of a paradox.
As written and directed by Bo Burnham, this sly tour through all the horrors of early adolescence deals with sexuality in a manner that would normally prohibit endorsement for any but grownups.
Yet for all the uneasiness viewing the film might produce for parents with mature teens in tow, this artful study in awkwardness has fundamentally sound messages to convey as its emotionally beleaguered heroine runs a gamut of challenges both to her dignity and her chastity.
Enduring those trials is Kayla, portrayed in a riveting performance by Elsie Fisher. Plagued by acne and a chunky physique, Kayla is predictably unpopular and feels marginalized by her shallow peers at the middle school from which she’s about to graduate.
Ironically, though, upbeat Kayla posts self-help internet videos about the very topics, such as being comfortable with yourself and having the courage to try new things, with which she herself struggles in real life. Additionally, surfing the web provides Kayla with a refuge from her troubles — as underlined at one point by Burnham’s use of the 1988 Enya hit “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away).”
Kayla has manifold problems from which to flee. Aiden (Luke Prael), the boy of her dreams, appears impossibly remote and utterly indifferent toward her. She’s pursued instead by likable goofball Gabe (Jake Ryan) who’s just as low on the social totem pole as Kayla herself.
She’s also disdained by the two most popular — and meanest — girls in her class, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and Steph (Nora Mullins). Back home, meanwhile Kayla squirms under the loving but overzealous care of her well-meaning nerd of a single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton).
Positive attention from Olivia (Emily Robinson), the amiable student with whom she’s paired during a daylong visit to her future high school, offers Kayla some relief from her isolation. But it also leads to emotional manipulation by Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), one of Olivia’s classmates, who tries to use a game of truth or dare to pressure Kayla into sex.
Along the same lines, Aiden turns out to be a sleazy character, a pint-sized playboy whose attention can be grabbed by girls willing to share naked selfies and to pleasure him orally. Though this revelation drives besotted Kayla to some comic experimentation with a banana — cut short, early on, by Dad’s unexpected arrival home — in the end she steers clear of being used and debased, either by Riley or Aiden.
In fact, in contrast to so many Hollywood films about lust-mad kids, “Eighth Grade” quietly promotes an elevated view of human sexuality and implicitly condemns the low ethics of the hookup culture — which, it seems, has taken hold even among 13-year-olds.
Burnham’s script also subtly endorses nondenominational religious faith. Thus, on the eve of an important event, Kayla offers a heartfelt prayer for its successful outcome.
Asked by Gabe, in a later scene, if she believes in God, Kayla affirms that she does. In response, he nods approvingly. The unspoken import of this exchange is that such belief is a hallmark of both these downtrodden but upright figures — and is probably absent from the lives of their persecutors or would-be users.
Ending on a note of hard-won hope, this canny coming-of-age tale can provide a good starting point for a valuable family discussion about positive and negative values, at least with older kids. Many parents can be forgiven, though, for finding the cost in discomfiture just too high.
The film contains much sexual humor, including a brief sight gag about masturbation and a nonexplicit sequence dealing with oral sex, fleeting scatological humor, a couple of uses of profanity and occasional rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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