If you’d ever seen Bo Burnham’s old YouTube videos, just a teen singing in his bedroom, you would never guess his talent for comedic songs would translate to an enormous talent for filmmaking as well. What the writer/director does in Eighth Grade (well, he does a lot, but specifically) is something few films ever really do: perfectly capture both the time period it was made in and the type of people it was made about. It is unlikely that any movie will ever feel more true to the 2017-2018 era. It’s as if Burnham simply lowered a camera into the life of a middle school girl and captured her all too-real existence.
From the very first scene, we wholly understand just what kind of person the main character, Kayla, is and what kind of struggles she has. She makes personal advice vlogs on YouTube, and she’s terrible at it. As we watch her give a three-minute speech on being yourself, she says nothing outside of filler words and cliches, and we realize that she truthfully knows nothing about the subject. This symbolizes the great struggle Kayla goes through: to want desperately to be liked for the “real her”, but not knowing who she really is. Kayla is an amazingly written character, but actress Elsie Fisher makes it work. Not just the role, but the movie itself rests upon her shoulders, and she carries it with remarkable ease. It’s common for younger actors to overact in their roles, but Fisher is, in a word, natural. She makes Kayla feel so simple and real it’s often easy to forget you’re watching a movie rather than a real girl’s life. Fisher is the breakout star of the movie, giving an unexpectedly nuanced performance, and I can’t wait for her to be casted in more projects in the future.
But the unexpected heart of the movie lies in Kayla’s relationship with her father, played by Josh Hamilton. We see him continually reach out and try to connect with Kayla only for her to repeatedly rebuke his attempts at affection, like any embarrassed teen might. But watching their relationship develop is the most rewarding and heartwarming part of the movie. The dynamic is particularly important because Kayla’s father becomes somewhat of an audience surrogate by the end of the movie. He loves as any parent should, unconditionally, and we get several scenes demonstrating just how much he loves Kayla and what great an honor he feels it is to be her dad. We as an audience don’t always see the best of Kayla; she certainly isn’t perfect, and at first glance might seem unremarkable. But as you spend time with her in her life, you understand how incredible she really is just by being her. And when it’s over, you can’t help but see her as someone with incredible potential and an exciting future.
Despite being hard-set in modern times, something which often instantly dates comedies, it uses the overbearing presence of technology to build its own rich, distinct tone and create a unique, realistic struggle for its main character.
Eighth Grade is the first great, and also perhaps the first accurate, coming of age story for the smartphone generation. Social media has created a culture where we project a certain version of ourselves, really only allowing snippets of truth through the screen, and never our more ugly, honest sides. Eighth Grade is the first movie to look at what growing up in that environment could do to a kid, and how impossible trying to fake the same thing is when in person. As easy as it would be, Eighth Grade never falls into an overly-critical “these darn kids and their iPhones” attitude. It’s critical of the problems social media can create without ever blaming the concept of social media itself. Rather, it understands its young subjects like you understand your younger self. Think about yourself when you were that age. You probably wish you could go back in time and slap some sense into yourself, to warn yourself about how trivial all your concerns were and how they all worked out. But at the same time, no one knew better than you just how real those problems were. Eighth Grade treats its middle-school problems with the same sincerity actual kids do, but with the same comforting perspective one has knowing that things only improve from there.
If you’re worried the attempts at being relevant and young might come off as unintentionally cringey, don’t. With this film, Bo Burnham has cemented himself as the modern master of cringe comedy. Kayla’s great problem is social anxiety, and therefore no social interaction in the movie goes on without an overwhelming sense of uncomfortableness. Sometimes it’s almost hard to watch because scenes become so awkward and the characters so cringey. But at the same time, I’ve never enjoyed being uncomfortable so much. The cringe is always intentional, and more often than not, hilarious. Seriously, this movie is so funny. But Burnham doesn’t simply let the struggle sit there, taking nothing but comedy from social anxiety. He explores it in all its possible manifestations. He builds immense tension with it, showing how something seemingly as simple as talking to someone at a pool party could become a realistically impossible task. It’s even employed in one bone-chilling, heartbreaking scene you’re sure to be talking about long after the movie ends.
Eighth Grade is not a movie you want to miss. Absolutely see it in theaters if you can, because the overpowering awkwardness of some scenes makes it a great crowd experience. It’s a funny, emotional, and genuine coming of age story that effortlessly integrates our real modern society into its own world and story, driven by an incredible performance from its lead.
Eighth Grade is in theaters now.
Thirteen-year-old Kayla endures the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence as she makes her way through the last week of middle school—the end of her thus far disastrous eighth grade year—before she begins high school.