Dir. by Bo Burnham
Released July 13, 2018
Now streaming free on Amazon Prime
“Eighth Grade” will make you cringe. Which is exactly what you’re supposed to do. In his directorial debut, comedian Bo Burnham masterfully crafts a visceral look at what it means to be a young girl in middle school, covering the relationships thirteen-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) has with her father, social media and the anxiety of it all.
The film opens with a grainy shot of Kayla as she speaks earnestly into the camera; she is filming a video for her YouTube channel, where she doles out stock advice like “be yourself” and “don’t care about what anyone else thinks of you.” But then she slouches into her last week of eighth grade, gripping a time capsule she made herself at the start of middle school emblazoned with the phrase “To The Coolest Girl in the World,” altogether friendless and alone. She’s gawky, she’s awkward and she’s obsessed with her online presence. When she is voted the superlative “Most Quiet” by her classmates, her face falls. For all her chattering online, she is still overlooked by everyone that she wants to impress.
Towards the beginning of the film, there is every uncool kid’s nightmare: a pool party. The music swells as Kayla steps out of the bathroom and into a party where she is completely unwanted — she was invited by the “Cool Girl’s” mom. There is an uncomfortably close shot of Kayla in her unfortunate green one-piece swimsuit, contrasting starkly with the bikinis and exposed skin of the girls around her, and she hovers for a minute, trying to figure out what to do and where to go. Prior to her entrance, she had been having a panic attack in the bathroom, and now she desperately tries to make herself as small as possible to avoid ridicule. Writer and director Bo Burnham is no stranger to this, as on more than one occasion he has described the feeling of having panic attacks while performing his comedy onstage to hundreds of people who had no idea what kinds of thoughts were racing through his mind.
There are so many aspects of this film that are impressive, but the tour de force by far is Elsie Fisher’s performance as Kayla. Fisher portrays the intimacies of being a lonely young teenager growing up in the digital age in the most authentic way possible, from the way she applies makeup in the morning to the interactions she has with her father (Josh Hamilton). Her dad is raising her alone, and he is relentlessly kind. He worries about Kayla the way every parent worries about their teenage daughter, despite her rolling eyes and rebuffed attempts to connect. When Kayla, distraught after a moment in a dark car where an older boy tries to convince her to take off her shirt in the spirit of truth or dare, decides to burn her time capsule, her dad is right there next to her. He doesn’t know why she wants to burn the evidence of her middle school years, but he’s there for her anyway. During this scene, where the only way to see their faces is by the flickering of the fire in front of them, Kayla asks her father if she makes him sad. When he is confused by the question, she explains that if she grew up and had a daughter who acted the way she did, she would be sad all the time. “You’re wrong,” her dad says, speaking emphatically with his hands. “You don’t know — you don’t know how happy you make me. It’s beyond — I can’t describe it. It’s so easy to love you, it’s so easy to be proud of you.” A transcript of this scene won’t do it justice, but it is so powerfully acted by both Fisher and Hamilton that it will have you weeping openly into your own shirt as you remember what it feels like to be thirteen and alone, despite being surrounded by people.
“Eighth Grade” shows the ugliness and the utter vulnerability of coming-of-age. It isn’t necessarily John Hughes-ian; there are no fists thrown in the air and no final prom scene. Instead of a makeover montage, there’s a sequence where Kayla scrolls through various social media feeds, her face illuminated in the dark by her Tumblr screen while Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” plays in the background. It’s discomforting in the best way. This is a quiet tale of adolescence, of growing up before you know how. For those who have been (or are) sad, lonely, desperate, awkward and vulnerable: this movie is for us. See yourself in Kayla and look at who you are now. Kayla grew, and so have you.