‘Eighth Grade’ Review

Editor KC Wingert tackles Bo Burnham’s directorial debut to celebrate it’s US anniversary. 

Embarrassing crushes, burgeoning sexuality, bullying, and mall hangs: Eighth Grade covers all the universal experiences that come with being a middle-schooler. But writer and director Bo Burnham’s first feature-length film offers viewers an in-depth exploration of the complicated nature of being a middle-schooler specifically in today’s hyperconnected society.

“Being in eighth grade is weird, and being alive right now is weird,” comedian Burnham explained to the audience at a screening, held in the auditorium of Joseph le Conte Middle School in Hollywood last July. The audience, an eclectic mix of creators, industry tastemakers, and actual eighth graders, murmured in agreement. In an age where social media rules and every kid has an iPhone, it has become harder for older generations to relate to the issues kids today face. Eighth Grade calls on older viewers to look on younger generations with compassion as they grapple with both the painful awkwardness of growing up and the additional toxicity that social media can add to their lives. At the same time, the film offers a hopeful message to its younger viewers along the lines of, “You’re going to be okay.”

Eighth Grade is the story of Kayla’s (Elsie Fisher) last week of middle school. Deemed “Most Quiet” in her school’s superlative vote, Kayla actually has a lot to say, and she documents most of it on her YouTube channel. She offers advice to her viewers through daily segments on topics like “How to Be Confident” and “How to Put Yourself Out There.” She tries really hard to apply her advice to her own life, too, by posting sticky notes with encouraging messages near her mirror and making lists of goals (“Be more confident”) and how to meet them (“Don’t slouch”). In her videos, she spends a lot of time talking about how she used to lack confidence, but now she’s doing great. However, this is not entirely truthful: although she definitely puts herself out there a lot by trying to befriend the cool girls and talk to cute boys, doing these things doesn’t always wield the results Kayla wants. Downtrodden, she blames herself and continues on her perpetual journey toward self-improvement.

This is where the pernicious influence of social media plays in: Kayla spends a lot of her free time scrolling through her Instagram feed and posting pictures of her heavily made-up face to Snapchat with captions like, “I woke up like this.” The omnipresence of social media in her and her classmates’ lives pressures Kayla to perform happiness. All of this is a ruse to impress the cool kids at her school, like the deliciously bitchy Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), a rich girl who hates Kayla for seemingly no reason, and the tooootal heartthrob Aiden (Luke Prael), Kayla’s bad-boy crush who only perks up when she lies to him about taking naughty pictures.

Kayla looks at the images of her classmates on social media and compares them to her real-life, awkward self, prompting her to strive for self-improvement at all costs. If she were to look around her, though, Kayla would see that all of her peers are just as weird and awkward as she thinks she is. Unflattering close-ups of kids popping rubber bands onto their braces, flipping their eyelids inside-out, and pushing chewed-up bubble gum through their lips are peppered throughout the film.

By focusing so much on impressing the people who don’t like her, Kayla isolates herself from the people who truly love her and want to spend time with her. Finally, after a series of missteps including a harrowing conversation with a high school boy who pressures her to do something she doesn’t want to do, Kayla decides to open up to her father and let him in on her struggle. “It’s so easy to love you,” Kayla’s father, played by Josh Hamilton, assures his daughter in the most inspirational Dad Monologue to grace the big screen since Call Me By Your Name.

Eighth Grade joins other recent dramas with young protagonists like The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker) and Spanish film Summer 1993 (dir. Carla Simón) in successfully portraying pain through the eyes of a child. Under Burnham’s masterful direction, 15-year-old Elsie Fisher’s powerful portrayal of the character, with her stumbling speech and nervous quietness, perfectly captures the essence of an anxiety-ridden teenage girl. Directing children is an admirable feat, and Burnham has done so with aplomb by choosing to highlight the fun quirks of the children he cast in his breakout film. The hilariously eccentric character Gabe, for example, could not have been brought to fruition had Burnham not taken care to embrace and highlight actor Jake Ryan’s real-life idiosyncratic personality on film.

Overall, Bo Burnham’s feature directing debut is an outstanding success featuring all the hilarity and heartbreak of being an average, everyday, middle-school girl. With stellar performances, gut-wrenching emotion, and an ultimate message of optimism, Eighth Grade is a film that people of all ages can enjoy.

Eighth Grade is now available on DVD and online. Check out the trailer below: 

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