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