In Eighth Grade, the feature debut of comedian-singer-songwriter Bo Burnham, you’re either a Kayla (Elsie Fisher) or you know a Kayla from your days as an over-it-all punk-ass. The distinction is key to your experience. The film stages a too-real reenactment of middle school’s rigors, but it’s the people we endure those rigors with who shape our turbulent pubescence. Sure, sitting through Ms. Hawking’s ornithology lessons was hell, but hell’s preferable to striking up conversation with your classmates.
Burnham uses the awkward terrain of juvenile social interaction as Eighth Grade’s focal point, painting the daunting exercise of talking to other kids as a stairway to embarrassment. We meet Kayla pre-humiliation, recording clips for her YouTube channel in her room, dispensing life advice in the coltish manner of a newly minted teen. She’s extraordinarily inarticulate, but in her ramblings we find the profound insight only a 13 year old can offer. “Aren’t I always being myself?” she says to her camera, the sage instructing the benighted. “Well, yeah, for sure.” She’s a self-help layman, but her sincerity is charming. Don’t change who you are to impress others. Words to live by.
Kayla, like anyone else trying to stay afloat in the sometimes cutthroat world of middle school, sells out her ideals almost immediately, a defensive posture to deflect her loneliness. Burnham invites us to recall our own adolescence, and also to consider how adolescence has changed in the time of social media. Being a lonely child in the ’80s, the ’90s, or even the aughts was bad enough. Imagine being that same child equipped with a handheld window gazing into the curated lives of others. Kayla spends excessive amounts of time on her phone, either taking selfies in bed or eating dinner with her devoted but helpless single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), staring into the digital ether. She’s isolated from her family by technology, and her peers by popular hierarchies.
Kayla’s of no more consequence to those at the top of the pecking order than a retweet sent without comment. This is especially the case with Kennedy (Catherine Olivier), a cool-mean girl in a constant state of blank-faced apathy. She sucks. Frankly, everyone Kayla encounters each day she wastes in school sucks, save resident weird kid Gabe (Jake Ryan), who she hardly notices even at his most show-offy (because weird kids show off in weird ways), and Olivia (Emily Robinson), a high schooler tasked with chaperoning Kayla around campus for a preview of what life looks like post-middle school. Olivia proves her worth immediately, affirming that indeed, nobody’s really cool in middle school, and also that things get better.
When you’re in Kayla’s position, that simple assurance is a lifesaver thrown to the drowning, but of course things generally stay the same before they get better. Eighth Grade doesn’t take a sunny stance on coming of age: Kayla inhabits a small world composed of home and school, and each time she moves from one, she reshuffles her identity based on her circumstances. The film has an honest perspective, meaning that it’s blunt, though it mellows its harshness with an unfailing sense of humor as well as Fisher’s performance. Best known for voice acting winsome Agnes in the Despicable Me films, Fisher is herself 15 but has a preternatural talent for straddling lines, balancing Kayla’s drive to be the person she wants to be with her desire to be someone everyone likes.
That’s life. Even as adults we’re often caught between those axes, weighing the merits of self-possession without apology against the finer points of conformity. In Eighth Grade, that dynamic is far more pronounced. When you’re young, you imagine that your whole life, laid out ahead of you in a series of diverging paths, hinges on your cool factor right now. You’ll take all sorts of risks to secure status: You’ll go to your own Kennedy’s birthday party even though you know her mom made her invite you, you’ll sing karaoke in front of strangers, and if you’re a girl, you may even end up in dangerous situations with boys older than you who think they’re entitled to your body.
Being a teenage girl isn’t easy. Occasionally, it’s perilous. That Eighth Grade so genuinely conveys those difficulties and dangers is miraculous considering its source. Watching Burnham’s own YouTube videos, working out his uncertainty of the average Boy Scouts’ sexuality in song, we find scarce evidence of the storyteller we see in the movie, just a shared fondness for video-sharing services and self-determination. (You get the feeling that Burnham, whatever he does, never wants to be anyone other than Burnham.) Regardless, the greatest miracle of Eighth Grade is its warmth. The film reflects arguably the worst stretch of growing up in America’s education system, but it’s rarely if ever ugly. Instead, it’s compassionate, radiating retroactive kindness for the children we all were to soothe the adults we are now.
Director: Bo Burnham
Writer: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Catherine Olivier, Daniel Zolghadri
Release Date: July 13, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.