Kayla’s struggling. She’s a quiet eighth-grader on the edge of fifteen with few friends IRL and even fewer online, where she uploads YouTube entries which go mostly unviewed. She’s about to leave middle school under a cloud of ignominy, having been voted ‘most quiet’ by her peers.
It’s something of a catalyst for Kayla, who’s already hyper-aware of her relative social standing. Like a lot of teenagers, she’s already subject to the tyranny of self-actualisation – her bedroom mirror is adorned with positive quotes on post-its and her videos concern how to be confident, happy and ‘yourself’. It’s a performance that she kicks into high gear when she tries to “put herself out there” and compensate for years of social awkwardness. Things dont go exactly as planned for Kayla, and Eighth Grade mines comedy and pathos from her successes and failures alike.
What follows will be a dizzying trip for a lot of viewers backwards through the school hallways and backseat fumbling of their teen years. There’s a verite energy to the camerawork from cinematographer Andrew Wehde. Although this is the first feature from comedian Bo Burnham as writer/director, he has directed comedy specials for himself and Chris Rock, and he puts the experience to good use here. Human vulnerability is one of his pet themes, and he knows that the close-up is king – watching a flicker of disappointment play over Kayla’s face when she misses an opportunity or fumbles an interaction becomes more and more heartbreaking each time. Likewise, his proximity to the characters allows us to clearly see Kayla’s blemished and imperfect skin: a quietly radical choice. Its a hugely confident debut.
Burnham’s routines about his discomfort in packaging his thoughts and feelings for public consumption are core to his later work, and he mines the same material here. But hes also comfortable with bringing some levity over to the film world: there’s a lot of disarming observational humour, and the film’s occasional music drops are perfectly timed to defuse tension and force viewers to burst out laughing.
Elsie Fisher as Kayla is a genuine talent, able to convey abject sadness with a mere furrowing of her eyebrows. She spends much of the film reflected in the glow of an LCD screen, with nothing to hide behind, and she’s absolutely magnetic to watch. Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s endlessly patient and loving dad, unable to get through to her, is the parent we all deserve.
The universal nature of the middle school experience – imaginary boyfriends, blowjob anxiety and a chronic, directionless horniness – is replicated in Eighth Grade with total, cringeworthy, fidelity. But a shooting drill at Kayla’s school, conducted with total indifference by the student and faculty, reminds us that America is a place where kids have to grow up quickly.
As the film goes on and Kayla frantically doubles down on her efforts to pursue a connection with her peers, anxiety sufferers will relate to her plight. But anyone who had a hard time during their ‘golden years’, and felt the overwhelming burden of trying to make them as magical as they’re supposed to – will empathise too. Though deceptively low on incident – Kayla goes to a pool party, the mall, makes friends with some high school kids, and that’s more or less it – there’s more of a real journey in Eighth Grade than you’ll find in ten Marvel films.
It seems like Eighth Grade is going to become a film inveighing against the evils of social media, but in my opinion it isn’t. It’s true that the images of perfection and happiness reflected in Kayla’s eyes fuel her anxiety, but I don’t think it’s accidental that Burnham shows Kayla using her phone to spark genuine connections with other people. Really, Eighth Grade isn’t a film about the evils of anything. Though it gently reminds us that we would do well to log out once in a while, it’s a sad, sweet lament for childhood innocence more than an information-age jeremiad – it asks us to let kids be kids while they still have the chance. Like Kayla, this film doesn’t need to be anything else: it’s perfect as it is.