I wish I could say, even retrospectively, that I learned anything from my middle school years. This was a time I developed a lot of taste I still maintain today, when I started getting into movies–by 13, I had memorized every film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, which I have somehow still retained–and when I took up music. I started to be interested in girls–and developed the unshaken habit of latching on too intensely for too long. Social media exist, but not the extent platforms like Twitter or Instagram exist now. So, I wasn’t really into any of that. And while I was never a problem child, I still have my fair share of embarrassing moments, the main takeaway was to either never do them again, or never get caught. Otherwise, early adolescence was squarely about survival.
Really though, that seems to be the heart of any coming-of-age story: Just living out one day to the next. And Eight Grade is no different. Inspired in great part to his own struggles with debilitating anxiety, Bo Burnham’s narrative feature debut–he has dabbled in directing specials for himself and fellow stand-ups Jerrod Carmichael and Chris Rock–applies a deft touch to the nerve-wracking hell that is the first years of our teens. And while Eighth Grade is not particularly groundbreaking, Burnham’s film is a deeply likable and earnest portrait of modern life, told with a deft and unassuming touch.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is entering the last week of eighth grade, headed off to high school in the coming months. And the film stays with in those few days, covering quite a bit of ground in such a short time. As loose framing device, we see Kayla making self-help videos with Photobooth, which few of anyone seems to watch. And really, they do seem to be a sort of public diary for whatever Kayla concerned with at any given point. These monologues are largely comprised of simplistic platitudes for broad issues, like “being yourself,” or “being confident.” They’re obviously too neat, and even Kayla seems like she’s reiterating vague notions she has picked up other places, though as she experiences more throughout the film, the more truthful they are.
And those experiences are plentiful in Eighth Grade. Most of the film is days in the life of Kayla. She watches make-up tutorials, frequents Instagram and Snapchat, draws fantastical illustrations in her notebooks. Kayla may not the prettiest girl in her school, nor is she the most outgoing–in a sort of mock election, she is voted Most Quiet. We see her consumed by the internet. The film never goes full Ingrid Goes West, but the way she stares for hours on end at her screens, wanting to look like women she follows, crushing on boys in her class, and feeling totally self-conscious and unable to express herself clearly, all of her struggles are crushingly real. And while Kayla has the most unconditional kindness and support from her dad (Josh Hamilton), Kayla doesn’t want affirmation in the form of her dad, because Kayla wants to be grown-up, and having a goofy dad around makes her feel infantilized.
And though the film is told through Kayla’s point of view, Burnham is pretty objective about the weirdness of Kayla’s peers. Whether this is sniffing markers, or turning one’s eyelids inside out, or furiously masturbating in class while hiding in one’s shirt, Eighth Grade is not shy about the ways kids unwittingly embarrass themselves. And while other eighth graders freely fly their freak flags with no shame, Kayla is so hyper-aware of her behavior, and unable to respond to most situations with much ease or immediacy.
Kayla is also somewhat of a people-pleaser. When the mother of a popular girl in her grade–a girl named Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere)–invites Kayla to Kennedy’s s birthday party, all Kayla can see is her classmate’s face–Burnham even keeps the camera locked on Kennedy’s annoyed expression, her mother out of focus in the background. And because Kennedy is much more present to Kayla, of course she puts Kennedy in front of her mother’s insistence. Kayla wants to be herself, and wants to be liked, but doesn’t know how to do this without skirting those with more social clout than herself.
This need to be liked, predictably, manifests itself even more conspicuously when trying to navigate boys. Specifically, Kayla goes to cringeworthy lengths to attract the attention of her crush on Aiden (Luke Prael)–a kid who has bad boy looks and a hyper-masculinity complex, but who also mindlessly blows his mouth up like a balloon. Aiden’s the kind of kid who claims he would kick the shit out of an active shooter, and who only gives Kayla any actual attention when she feigns having nude photos of herself. She even goes so far as to try to teach herself how to perform felatio with a banana–in perhaps the most adorable covering up of a sex thing in any movie ever.
After all, Kayla is growing up, and she is aware of grown-up concepts. When Kayla shadows a high school girl Olivia (Emily Robinson), Kayla is treated like an equal, even though they’re four years apart in age–which is a considerable gap in maturity and experience when the younger of the two is just barely a teenager. Olivia even invites Kayla to hang out with her and her friends at the mall. Kayla just listens in on their spirited conversation, having nothing to contribute until she’s directly asked a question. She’s just happy to be there, happy that these older, wiser, cooler people are paying any attention to her at all. At one point, Kayla sees her dad spying on the group from afar, and confronts him, humiliated and angry. This constant anchor, keeping her tethered.
This scene is immediately followed by the closest the film has to a horror movie moment, where Kayla is alone with Olivia’s friend Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), who’s driving everyone home. Riley tries to move onto Kayla with a game of “truth or dare,” only for Kayla, who senses what Riley is trying to pull, to deflect every advance. And as scary as that moment is, Burnham lends a lot of humanity to the sexually frustrated Riley–according to Burnham, practically everyone who auditioned for Riley leaned too hard into the menace of the character, as opposed to the awkward, boundary-crossing creep who might truly believe they’re not doing anything wrong. Really though, Kayla is not ready for being grown up. Whether that means sex, or talking to people, or giving advice into a void, she’s forced to confront her own inexperience in an ugly, effective sequence–one that is maybe a little over-directed, but I digress.
As much as Eighth Grade is a scrapbook of 2018–one that, given the accelerated pace at which culture is moving, will feel dated in only a few years–isn’t necessarily bound by the time and place in which the film occurs. In a lot of ways, Kayla is enough of an observer to serve as a solid audience surrogate, capturing, without much surprise or curiosity, a sense of normalcy. With that in mind, Kayla has enough of her own personality and conflict to not feel like a stock character. This is largely owed to Fisher’s astonishing performance, whose timid, anxious, often frustrated demeanor is so effortless. And Kayla’s arc speaks largely to Burnham’s talents as a writer, as well as a collaborator–given that he would take a lot of cues from Fisher. Because, even though the world that Kayla is very different for anyone much older, how she processes many of her problems in the film isn’t.
And credit must be given to Bo Burnham, who makes the kind of indie darling that settles for writing accolades, but is more captivating as a work of direction. Burnham’s comedy performances, and the material he writes, is often very clever, with his stage work becoming increasingly more elaborate. So, perhaps his success with at least a small film being as playful shouldn’t be so unexpected. That he can make a relatively plotless story consistent and engaging is no small feat. In terms of form, Burnham is no Woody Allen or Louis C.K.–other stand-ups who, despite being horrible people, are inventive and forward-thinking–but he is more adventurous than most filmmakers making their first movie.
And yet, as much as one can look at Eighth Grade and see a very recognizable world, the film doesn’t do much with that world. We see a world with active shooter drills, with kids constantly documenting filtered versions of themselves chasing clout, with many of the same concerns of growing up. And while the film finds a unique idea in he end–in the form of a monologue from Josh Hamilton–Burnham also doesn’t do much with the culture we’re seeing. In that sense, the film is incurious, doubling down on authenticity. But just showing a thing doesn’t make for good storytelling. Even thematically, Eighth Grade is very familiar and safe. So, while Burnham’s picture isn’t exactly transcendent or essential, Eighth Grade is a pleasant, welcome project that suggests quite a bit of potential.