“Eighth Grade” is a perceptive look at anxiety, wrapped in a teen dramedy

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Eighth Grade, the directorial debut of young comedian Bo Burnham, isn’t your average teen coming-of-age story. While the film hits the genre’s familiar beats—tension-filled parties, awkward conversations with parents, clashes with “mean girls”—it also operates on a much deeper level. It explores the ailment that’s often responsible for these miserable middle school experiences, and many adult ones too: anxiety.

Burnham’s film is something of a Trojan horse. Beneath the veneer of a quippy teenage dramedy, Eighth Grade is a study of anxiety. And it’s devastatingly effective, depicting with keen insight the crushing weight of the disease—how it consumes every thought of those afflicted, how it becomes an oppressor that does not discriminate based on age, gender, or sexuality.

We meet Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in the final week of her middle school career, before starting high school. The 13-year-old’s mother is not in the picture, but she has a goofy, caring father (Josh Hamilton), who’s trying to connect with his aloof daughter, even as she obsessively browses social media on her cell phone at the dinner table.

Kayla slogs through her youth under a blanket of dread, worrying, worrying, and worrying some more. Every decision she makes takes on the weight of life or death. She makes excruciating self-help YouTube videos in her spare time (which she has a lot of), advising others on how to overcome confidence and self-esteem issues.

Kayla’s middle school experience is the vessel for this story, but the film extends far beyond the daily concerns of a middle-schooler. Yes, her awkward encounters with classmates and difficulty “putting herself out there” will ring true to anyone who has lived through those years, or is in the midst of them now. But it will remind many adults of their current lives, too.

That’s because many adults are also cripplingly anxious these days. A recent survey by the American Psychiatric Association suggests anxiety has spiked in the US in recent years, and some have gone so far as to warn of an “anxiety epidemic.” The social media age, with all its pings and humblebrags and aspirational imagery, is not easy on the anxious mind. And success is no cure: A growing cadre of artists and celebrities have opened up about their struggles with anxiety. “Anxiety has become our everyday argot, our thrumming lifeblood,” wrote Alex Williams last year in the New York Times. (He adds, “If anxiety is the melody of the moment, President Trump is a fitting maestro.”)

The 27-year-old Burnham has spoken publicly about his struggle with anxiety throughout adolescence and young adulthood. In high school, he was in and out of the hospital with stomach issues which he believed to be gastrointestinal disease. He didn’t realize until later that it was actually his anxiety that was making him physically ill, manifesting itself as a permanent pit in his stomach.

After a wildly successful career on YouTube launched him into the mainstream comedy world, Burnham began experiencing panic attacks before some of his stand-up shows. In an illuminating talk with the YouTube personality Ethan Klein, Burnham discussed his anxiety, explaining how it’s shaped his career, and, now, his first feature film.

Maybe the most surprising moment in the film is when Kayla—in her first substantial conversation with her father that we see—confesses that she’s perpetually worried about being a disappointment to him. When she’s a mother, Kayla says, she thinks having a daughter like her would make her sad all the time.

In a touching moment of great cinematic parenting, her father assures her that couldn’t be further from the truth. He owns up to having anxiety of his own, constantly questioning whether he is doing a good job raising her. Verbalizing these internal worries, and having another brain that is not their own process them, seems to help them both.

Eighth Grade opened in nine cities last weekend (in addition to New York and Los Angeles, where it opened the week before). Based on a robust per-theater box office average, the film is likely to get a wider release in subsequent weeks.