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If You're Familiar With Bo Burnham's Humor, 'Eighth Grade' Will Surprise You


YouTube star Bo Burnham is known for the rapid-fire comic videos he started making as a teenager. He's now 27 with an impressively diverse resume - musician, comedian, writer, producer, singer-songwriter, rapper, actor, poet. And at this year's Sundance Film Festival, he added movie director to that list. Critic Bob Mondello says if you're familiar with Bo Burnham's caustic sense of humor, the comedy in his new film "Eighth Grade" will surprise you.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Kayla is 13, precocious, sweet, a middle school student who like a lot of kids her age spends even dinnertime with eyes glued to her smartphone, ears sporting earbuds.


JOSH HAMILTON: (As Mark) Kayla, one more week of eighth grade, huh?

ELSIE FISHER: (As Kayla) Huh?

HAMILTON: (As Mark) I said, one more week of eighth grade, right?

FISHER: (As Kayla) Yeah.

HAMILTON: (As Mark) That's crazy.

FISHER: (As Kayla) Yeah, huh?

MONDELLO: Dad's trying. He's aware that Kayla doesn't have many friends and that she's eager to hang with the cool crowd in school but is falling short.


HAMILTON: (As Mark) I think you're so cool. Maybe you just need to put yourself out there a little.

FISHER: (As Kayla) I'm going to stop eating with you...

HAMILTON: (As Mark) Hey, I'm saying...

FISHER: (As Kayla) ...If you keep doing this...

HAMILTON: (As Mark) You said I could say one thing.

MONDELLO: Dad doesn't realize, but she's actually hearing him when he says to put herself out there. As a bulwark against loneliness, she makes life advice YouTube videos that she doesn't really expect anyone to watch. They're sort of pep talks for herself.


FISHER: (As Kayla) So the topic of today's video is putting yourself out there. OK, so, like, what does that mean? Where is there? Well, there can be anywhere that you wouldn't usually go, you know, maybe because it's, like, weird or scary or something like that.

MONDELLO: See; she got it. Her fear is that she'll always be as tentative and nervous as she is now. But a friendly high school senior lets her know that that's kind of normal.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I was a complete mess when I was your age.

FISHER: (As Kayla) Really?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Eighth grade is the worst.

MONDELLO: An invitation follows to join her and some high school pals at the mall, a huge deal for Kayla if she can just survive the drive over with her dad.


FISHER: (As Kayla) Can you not look like that please?

HAMILTON: (As Mark) What? Like what?

FISHER: (As Kayla) Just, like, the way you're looking.

HAMILTON: (As Mark) Looking at the road?

FISHER: (As Kayla) You can look at the road, Dad. I obviously didn't mean that. Just, like, don't be weird and quiet while you do it.

HAMILTON: (As Mark) Sorry. Hey, how was the shadow thing?

FISHER: (As Kayla) No, you were being quiet, which is fine. Just, like, don't be weird and quiet 'cause, like, I look over at you, and I think you're about to drive us into a tree or something. And then I get really freaked out, and then I can't text my friend. So just, like, be quiet, and drive, and don't look weird and sad.


MONDELLO: So he smiles.


FISHER: (As Kayla) That's worse.

MONDELLO: That's worse. Pretty much everything writer-director Bo Burnham has done before this would lead you to expect snap and snark from "Eighth Grade." But he's encouraged Elsie Fisher to make Kayla vulnerable and observant and then put her in situations that are played less for laughs than for smiles of recognition - the boy who's so determined to impress he undermines himself with every phrase, the pool party as rite of passage, the crush that goes unexpressed because how could you ever get those words out?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Just grabbed my phone, had to charge it.

FISHER: (As Kayla) Yeah, I mean, sometimes I charge it, too, my phone. I...

MONDELLO: "Eighth Grade" turns out to be an appealingly generous portrait of adolescent awkwardness, also of parental awkwardness, though Josh Hamilton's fumbling dad is a keeper. And more than anything, it's a reminder that things move really fast at that age.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) She's a different generation than us. She...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) She's not a different generation.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Yes, she is.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) She's four years younger than us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) She didn't have Twitter in middle school, and we did. That made us different. When did you get Snapchat? What grade?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Fifth grade.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Fifth?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Fifth grade? What? Yo, see?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) See?

MONDELLO: But there's hope for understanding. After all, Bo Burnham is 10 years older than these high school seniors, 14 years older than Kayla. And "Eighth Grade" proves that he not only gets them, but he can make audiences get them. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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