Director: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton
Comedian Bo Burnham’s vision of middle school captures perfectly the continuous hell that is in the in-between of childhood and adolescence. He doesn’t douse the young actors in makeup to cover their acne, and there is no shortage of awkward pauses or the shrill changing voices reciting Burnham’s naturalistic script. It is clear that the actors are truly experiencing this time of their life, and we’re experiencing it with them.
Aside from the setting of Eighth Grade, we are also provided with a worthy heroine: Elsie Fisher’s Kayla Day, who insists that she is not quiet, despite shrinking back in the face of every social opportunity. She makes YouTube videos, hoping to inspire confidence, hope, and sociability in viewers but mostly within herself. She, like the rest of us, struggles with taking her own advice.
Navigating her final week of the titular eighth grade, Kayla finds herself finally taking the risks she’s been advocating and going to a bratty classmate’s party, in an attempt to reach out. With her classmates either unsure of themselves or trapped in their own self-righteousness, she has very little success. There are no friends to be found, and as if this film were a typical teenage story, there’s also a boy she likes who virtually ignores her, and another who is relentlessly childish but means well. The adults in the audience are frustrated that she doesn’t listen to her father, the noblest character in the film.
Being born in the mid-90’s, this film was to me a wake-up call as to just how much the technology world has changed since I was a child. The children in this film all have smartphones in which their eyes never seem to leave, and social media plays a bigger role in their young lives than its remotely played in this reviewer’s adult one.
Despite being R-rated, I think that Eighth Grade would be perfect for the younger generations, for anyone from the ages of thirteen and older. As many adults resonate their younger selves with Kayla, I believe it’d be helpful for teenagers to resonate and compare their current identities with that of Kayla. She, like any great character, is flawed—she, like most teenagers, is shy, unsure of herself, and perpetually confused about her place in the world. But she, for the most part, doesn’t allow the indifference and actions (and often inaction) of others to hinder her, and has an admirable certainty of what she has to do to assert her place in the world. Through her hardships and development by the film’s end, I think that young viewers could have a role model in Kayla Day.
The compassion gained for this heroine sneaks up on the audience and is realized in a moment of tension about three-fourths of the way through the film. It is a moment that is defined by a feeling of helplessness that only a child could feel, and a loneliness that is cemented by the mature decision that Kayla has to make. It reminds us of Kayla’s own words of wisdom in the film’s opening: “There are evil people out there.”
Burnham’s direction proves to us that this is indeed a work of his own passion. As previously mentioned, the dialogue is as real as conversations you’ve had at that age. Burnham also interspersed the audio of Kayla’s videos with that of her real-life actions, as if giving us commentary on what is easier said than done. After the aforementioned moment of tension, we see Kayla run to her room in a long tracking shot in which we follow the back of her head, a scene of intensity that I wouldn’t want handled any other way.
Eighth Grade is not devoid of clichés, with Josh Hamilton’s character being imperfect in how perfect his character is written to be and the story of Kayla’s love life being one we’ve seen before. And at times you want to yell at Kayla yourself for her misguidance. But you realize she’s just a kid, and other scenes of this film manage to have a certain sweetness and endearment to them, to the point that you’re willing to almost forgive these aspects, and these aspects themselves are handled so realistically that we almost forget their predictability.