First thing’s first: Elsie Fisher is, at the risk of sounding trite, a revelation.

She is the young actress starring in writer-director Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, a teen dramedy unlike any we’ve seen on the big screen in recent memory. It may also be the first (and best) movie about Gen Z that could very well resonate across all demos.

Fisher plays 13-year-old Kayla, a girl on the verge of a major transition: graduating from middle school to high school. And every awkward, humiliating, joyful, devastating, and mundane moment leading up to that is captured and conveyed with such gorgeous poignancy and tender nuance.

Burnham, mostly known for his stand-up and YouTube past, proves himself here as a keen observer of adolescent life in the late 2010s. Welcome to a world of sniffing markers, shooter drills (look out for a scene that is simultaneously funny, jawdropping, and heartbreaking), and adults pathetically attempting to dab and use words like “lit.”

It doesn’t take long to easily settle into Kayla’s world and realize just how much she is a product of it. She comes from a single-parent household (Josh Hamilton plays her dad to perfection). She mindlessly scrolls through Instagram, liking random posts, hoping to be liked back (a rabbit hole she often falls into, staged with a kaleidoscopic effect and a synth-dizzy score). She records weekly affirmations on YouTube that no one watches (a device brilliantly used to juxtapose her daily struggles at school). And all throughout, she so desperately wants to be “cool.”

Everything seen through Kayla’s eyes is executed with slight exaggeration because, let’s face it, exaggeration is what teens do best. Everything is a big deal, everything is heightened, and Burnham and composer Anna Meredith excel at punctuating all those feels with the right amount of punch. When Kayla eyes the boy she likes, a douchebag-in-training named Aiden, the entire world predictably slows down, but this time it’s set to a pulsating EDM track. When Kayla puts herself out there at a mean girl’s pool party — in an unflattering green swimsuit — we follow her along that tense, unbearable walk until she submerges herself, hiding among a group that doesn’t even acknowledge her. We see her pain. We feel her pain. We know her pain.

Relief does come in the form of Olivia (Emily Robinson), a high school junior who acts as a much-needed mentor to Kayla, and the equally awkward Gabe, a nerd played by a young actor named Jake Ryan (Sixteen Candles fans, go ahead and chuckle). While Olivia promises a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel (high school can be shitty, but not as shitty as middle school), Gabe represents the small makings of a social circle Kayla has always dreamed of (an exchange over a plate of chicken fingers and fries has never been this adorable).

All the while, Fisher, who was 14 at the time of production, effortlessly carries Eighth Grade on her sensitive shoulders. Since most of the conflict in the film is internal, the actress helps us see Kayla wrestle with it in ways that never feel forced. At times, it’s as if she isn’t even acting; the same goes with every other young actor here (upon seeing the trailer earlier this year, I thought this was a documentary), and this is most likely a result of being placed in the delicate hands of their director. Burnham, at the wise-old age of 27, is the perfect helmer to tell a story like this, not too far removed from the Gen Z set, yet skilled enough to carefully present them in a way that never feels condescending. Therefore Eighth Grade never comes off as an indictment of Kids These Days. It’s a beautiful snapshot of youth and the culture that is rapidly shaping it, whether we like it or not.

@TheFirstEcho