This article contains spoilers for the movie “Eighth Grade.”
Bo Burnham’s drama “Eighth Grade” has much that real eighth graders might recognize: a trumpet shriek during a school band concert, the glow of Instagram in a dark room, the awkwardness of a pool party photo. It’s a coming-of-age story that captures a generation weaned on screen time with astonishing honesty, critics say.
But there’s one major catch: Eighth graders can’t see it by themselves. Even though organizations like Common Sense Media deem the film appropriate for young teenagers, the film is rated R, because of a few choice four-letter words and some squirm-inducing sex talk.
On Wednesday, A24, the company behind the film, rebelled against the rating for one night, holding free all-ages screenings in every state. And teenagers came out in droves. According to the production company, theaters hit full capacity in Des Moines, Omaha and 13 other cities; more than 700 showed up at the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles, where Mr. Burnham and his 15-year-old star, Elsie Fisher, appeared in person to answer questions.
In Brooklyn, the line at the Alamo Drafthouse snaked into the hall for a second screening that had been quickly added after the first one sold out in a blink. Adults were far outnumbered by younger moviegoers, some excitedly clustering in groups, others nervously waiting alone.
Many said they were fans of Mr. Burnham — the filmmaker got his start as a comedian on YouTube — and learned about the event through his Instagram. That included two 15-year-old friends who were first in line, having shown up three hours early. “I thought it was going to be like those YouTube conventions where there are big lines,” one of them said. She had come out of both her enthusiasm for Mr. Burnham’s standup and her affinity for the subject material. “I had a very traumatic middle-school experience,” she said. “I would just lock myself in the bathroom and cry and have an anxiety attack all day.”
She was far from the only one there to bluntly recall struggles with mental-health issues. “For me it was really awful,” said one 13-year-old who graduated from middle school in June. “Throughout the entire thing I had pretty severe anxiety and depression.”
One 15-year-old, Terrance, brought his mother along in hopes that she would better understand the pressures technology imposes on people in his age group. “It was me trying hard to be someone that I wasn’t,” he said of his eighth-grade experience. “I know this movie will probably hit me hard.”
With the theater filled and more than 30 hopefuls turned away, two young stars of “Eighth Grade,” Jake Ryan and Imani Lewis, introduced the movie, which follows Kayla (Ms. Fisher), an eighth grader who builds a confident persona online while struggling with loneliness and anxiety in the real world.
During the screening, the audience joked, giggled and responded audibly to Kayla’s ups and downs. There were groans when a high school teacher dabbed; fidgeting and face-covering when Kayla searched for fellatio tips online; hisses and boos at an unwanted sexual advance; and sniffles during a tender, cathartic moment between Kayla and her father (Josh Hamilton).
Although most of the teenagers in the audience wouldn’t have been allowed in on a normal day, their attendance wasn’t illegal: The Motion Picture Association of America leaves enforcement of its ratings to the discretion of theaters. When the all-ages screenings were announced, the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group, condemned the decision. “The Hollywood studio at issue here is grotesquely and irresponsibly usurping parental authority,” the organization’s president, Tim Winter, said in a statement.
In a phone interview before the screening, Mr. Burnham acknowledged the importance of protecting kids, but said that his movie provided crucial context for difficult experiences. “I don’t look at the rating systems and think, ‘You guys are so puritanical and evil and out of touch,’” he said. “The problem is, kids are not getting that content from movies. They’re getting it from the internet. And you can’t stop them.”
Mr. Burnham, 27, said he learned about teen culture through YouTube vlogs and the eighth graders who surrounded him on set every day; he trusted them to help him create a world that was verbally and socially accurate. “I think kids can handle the truth of themselves; they don’t need their hand held through their own life,” Mr. Burnham said, before correcting himself: “Well, they do — but they don’t need it in art or whatever.”
After many scenes of escalating stress, the movie ended on a more optimistic note, with Kayla and her new goofy friend, Gabe (Mr. Ryan), eating chicken nuggets and imitating “Rick and Morty” characters.
“I felt like I was kind of collapsing in on myself until the scene where she’s at dinner,” the 13-year-old recent eighth-grade graduate said. “I definitely related a lot.”
Terrance agreed: “It was too real, definitely, but I appreciated it. It’s crazy how accurate it was.”
Teenagers weren’t the only ones affected. Kelly Alzamora, 40, brought her 13-year-old daughter. And while she admitted to watching her daughter during some uncomfortable scenes to gauge her reaction, she too saw herself in Kayla. “Everything she feels, I feel all the time. The anxiety doesn’t really go away,” she said.