As I prepared to see “Eighth Grade” a sense of terror coursed throughout my body. I was genuinely excited to see the widely adored teen drama while at the same time dreading the very thought. Why all the tension you ask? I’m a father of a wonderful young daughter who is about to enter…you guessed it…the eighth grade. And if the testimonies of the film’s bruising authenticity were true, I knew it would hit close to home.
This is the first feature film for writer-director Bo Burnham. At the risk of exposing my glaring ignorance of modern pop media, I had to do a search to find out more about him. Turns out Burnham has had an interesting rise to fame. He first “went viral” on YouTube in 2006 and his popularity quickly skyrocketed. Now in addition to being a musician, comedian, and actor, Burnham is an intriguing young filmmaker worth keeping your eye on.
“Eighth Grade” is a striking debut that reveals an astute perspective on middle school life. It’s a movie that I can see speaking to different people in a variety of ways. I can see it profoundly effecting those who find themselves in the lead character’s shoes. I can see it enlightening other groups to the struggles of fellow students. I can see it opening the eyes of parents to the complexities of their kid’s point of view while also giving kids a window into the heartfelt struggles of their parents.
The beating heart at the center of “Eighth Grade” is 15-year-old actress Elsie Fisher. While she did voice work in the first two “Despicable Me” movies, this is Fisher’s first big role but you would never guess it. She tailors a performance that is true and organic in every detail. Each insecurity and anxiety feels strikingly authentic. She’s truly a marvel, even a bit daring in her unflinching commitment to the role.
Fisher plays Kayla Day, a young teen navigating the final week of eighth grade. Middle school was tough, not near what she hoped it would be, but with a timid optimism she looks forward to the next stage in her life. Much to the chagrin of her patient and well-meaning single father (played by Josh Hamilton in just the right key), Kayla soaks her herself and her problems in the world of social media. She fills her follower-less YouTube channel with self-help advice videos in part because of her inherent kindness but also as a subconscious means of self-motivation.
Burnham keenly has his finger on the pulse of the weird middle school years where teens see everything changing both inside and out. It’s even tougher for a kid like Kayla who doesn’t fit neatly within the crude and often ugly social structure we have allowed and have often reinforced. She consistently rejects her own advice to “just be yourself” with awkward attempts to buddy up with the popular crowd. We know it won’t go well. On the flip-side is her relationship with her hapless father, unshakably loving but ill-equipped to handle his daughter’s swirl of emotions. The father/daughter tensions are portrayed with a clear-eyed honesty.
I was also drawn to Burnham’s use of perspective. You could be tempted to see his camera as mean-spirited and unsympathetic. It routinely highlights the droop of Kayla’s shoulders, the small rolls around her belly, her scattered acne which clashes with the pristine complexions of the in-girls. But that’s not what’s happening here. The bulk of the film is seen through Kayla’s eyes and often reflects how she sees herself as well as others. Take when she gets an adoring ‘puppy love’ glimpse of the class bad boy (Luke Prael). A hysterical bang of musical chords accompanies his studly slow motion strut across camera. But as with many things, that perspective changes over time.
“Eighth Grade” doesn’t pave an easy path for its lead character. Kayla’s struggles are realistic, relatable and heartbreaking. You could almost call it relentless if not for the welcomed moments of levity strategically sprinkled throughout. At the same time, Burnham offers an insightful critique of social media and internet identity, the very thing that launched his career. Yet beyond the slew of Snapchat and selfies is a strong message about believing in yourself and moving forward. That’s something I think we all need to hear.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
Awww. I almost went to see this today but decided I want to sleep in instead. I knew I should’ve went. I didn’t realize Bo Burnham directed it. I remember his youtube videos back in the day.
I felt like a dunce because I had no idea who he was. But you definitely should make a point to see it. I was pretty much smitten.
I don’t think this film as you say is “an insightful critique of social media and internet identity.” What is his critique? That people act, say, look at or do things on the Internet that they wouldn’t do in real life. That’s not insightful. That’s something we got eight years ago with ‘Catfish’ or even 20 years ago with ‘The Net’. Any of the stuff about kids in school isn’t insightful either. From ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ to ‘The Edge of Seventeen’, a lot of the stuff here is stuff we’ve seen about kids in school a million times.
There is an interesting idea here about kids today being “wired differently” because of the availability of Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, but Bo Burnham never really goes anywhere with that, beyond having a character state it. There’s an implication that kids today are more sexualized or more aware of sexuality at a young age, probably meaning that they have access via the Internet to more pornographic images but how that affects them in reality is never explored here, unless Burnham’s point is that it doesn’t really affect them.
Thanks for the thoughts. I think the film is quite insightful and I’m not sure how “Catfish”, “The Edge of Seventeen”, etc. nullifies that.
I think you hit one of the main critiques, that children can get lost in their internet identities which often times encourages them to be someone they aren’t. Also I think the movie has something to say about kids disconnecting from their family for social media, etc. As for how being more sexualized effects them, I didn’t feel the movie needed to plow deeper than it did. The most uneasy scene of the entire film was with the older boy in the car and it spoke volumes on the effects.
When I think of insightul, I think of going deeper than just surface-level comments. For example, the movie doesn’t really explore why she’s so insecure. We don’t see her with any friends either in school or online. Why is that? She’s in eighth grade and doesn’t have one friend whom she’s known since kindergarten or something. Why? What’s the deal there? The movie also does surface-level work with whatever happened to her mom. I mentioned ‘Catfish’ because I feel like we get more insight into the life of the person on the other end of the computer in that movie than we do of Kayla and her life up to this point here.
As far as the scene in the car with the older boy named Riley, I get that that’s a thing that could very well happen to a young girl, but that scene to me doesn’t say anything about Internet culture. The other guy at the mall commented on her generation being “wired differently” so based on that alone, did Riley think that she would just hook up with him in the back seat? It would be one thing if it were the other boy who did that, but there was no indication that Riley even thought that way, especially given the reaction of Olivia, which suggests it’s not a generational thing, it’s just a horny boy being a horny boy, which is something we’ve seen in countless teen comedies going back to the days of John Hughes, so I don’t get how it relates to the social media generation now.
And regarding kids disconnecting from their parents or families for social media, there is that scene at the dinner table where Kayla is on her phone, but that could have easily been a Sony Walkman that she was listening to. I didn’t get what was so specific about social media that was driving her to use it at the dinner table than anything else. Burnham doesn’t even show us in that scene what she’s looking at or what app she’s on or anything. All we see is her with the earbuds on, so again I just don’t get how insightful it is. Kids ignoring their parents at the dinner table is something that we’ve seen a million times before, why is this more insightful?
Again, thanks for the thoughtful comments. For me insightful is more of a keen understanding or perception of something. I think Burnham shows that throughout. As for her insecurity, I don’t think the movie needs to go deep into her state of mind to be effective. I think it shows more than enough. Simply put she doesn’t fit in any of the social groups that often pop up in school. As for her friends, I think it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t have any real friends. That may sound ridiculous but my wife (a seasoned teacher) was saying, it is such a true depiction for many kids she has encountered at that age. And the fact that the film didn’t get into her mom’s backstory is something I really liked about it. I didn’t feel the need for it.
I don’t think Riley spoke directly to the internet culture. Again, the whole movie isn’t about that. But it was a result of her trying to fit in and not being comfortable with herself. As for Riley’s motivations, I think it was pretty clear. He picked up on her adoration for them at the mall. She liked being with the older crowd which was something he felt he could manipulate.
As for kids and their parents, I think there is a lot more said in other scenes. Yes she doesn’t communicate at the dinner table. They have the back-and-forth in the car. She yells at him for coming into her bedroom without knocking. All of these scenes point to her rather being in that digital world than talking to her dad. And I would say the sheer amount of time she is on YouTube, Snapchat, etc. shows where she escapes to.
But again, social media is just one element of the film.
Interesting about what he does with perspective and the camera. I’ll definitely be giving this a watch.
It was a bit disturbing at first until I realized what he was going for. Then I found it extremely effective. Hope it’s showing near you. It’s a movie that deserves a bigger audience.
I do want to see this just for the fact that it’s interesting and realistic though I’m afraid that it might be too realistic as I have bad memories of life in middle school and I was starting to not care about my education when I joined the 8th grade and it would go further on during my freshman year in high school. I was really starting to act out at that time.
Hate to hear that and I completely understand where you’re coming from. You could be right. It may be a really tough watch for you. But as I wrote, there are moments of levity that keep the film from becoming relentlessly heartbreaking.
I have to say.. I completely loved it. 🙂 insightful review also.
Thanks you! It’s pretty great, isn’t it? It has really stuck with me since we saw it. How was the crowd at your showing? Pretty low at ours but I’m hoping word of mouth will get it more attention.
Oh that’s too bad on low turnout. Mine was a month or so ago at a Film Independent screening with Bo & Elsie doing a Q & A afterwards, so it was packed to the brim. And she got such an ovation when she came out. I loved her and damn the girl is smart as she kinda clocked the moderator a few times, in a fun way. I loved Bo’s insight into how he picked her and just what made the film special. I wrote all about it. I hope people remember this one come awards time. 🙂
Oh I’m jealous! I bet that was a wonderful event!
hahaha I mean – I know we both love & respect those Q & A ‘s so much – as they really do provide so much great insight into the movie.. heck I’m still excited I got to do it! hahahaha
Oh yes, I love them. Last year I was able to see a Q&A with Adam Driver. It was really cool. Later this month I’m going to one with Richard Linklater! Can’t wait.
In response to the person above, I don’t think the movie needs to explain why she’s so awkward or uncomfortable. Not the point. The point is that we all have a reason to feel that way at that age…some of us just hide it better than others.
Well said. The very fact that she does is rooted in a truth which many kids can sympathize with.
Exactly. If we wanted to get super picky, maybe it has something to do with the absence of her mother? (But there’s no reason to be picky).
Yep. And some kids simply struggle with insecurity. There are a plethora of reasons why from culture, peer pressure, even parental pressures.
Great review! I’m glad Eighth Grade is getting so much acknowledgement. I really enjoyed it, because I relate to it so much. I reviewed it recently if you want to read my thoughts on it: https://mastermixmovies.wordpress.com/2018/12/07/gucci%F0%9F%91%8C/
Look forward to reading. That movie has really stuck with me.