Sometimes simple things can be the most impactful. So it is with Eighth Grade, a small story of a young girl during her last week before she graduates and goes off to high school, which manages to resonate and devastate on a grand scale. The debut feature from actor and comedian Bo Burnham, it’s a keenly observed comedy-drama that at times feels as tense and harrowing as a horror movie, even though in big dramatic terms nothing much really happens. Kids this is not, yet as a highly empathetic and slightly terrifying picture of the pain of being a young person in the modern era, it’s just as scary and important.
Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla Day, a slightly awkward but very bright and sensitive girl who makes YouTube videos offering nuggets of positive life advice that no one really watches or comments on. Approaching graduation of middle school, Kayla is voted “most quiet” in a painfully misjudged class awards. But despite her discomfort and anxiety, she attempts to connect with the other students in various ways: attending a pool party hosted by one of the ‘cool girls’ who’s forced to invite her; hanging out at the mall with a new, older friend she meets at her high-school induction; and plucking up the courage to talk to the boy she likes.
Traversing that agonising point between childhood and adulthood, Kayla’s life is a balance of spots and braces, coloured pens and doodles, Instagram filters and naked selfies – and Burnham’s script brings out that dichotomy with sincerity, humour and a lightness of touch that makes the movie feel incredibly true and familiar, and yet not at all stale.
Burnham may never have been a teenage girl, but his inspiration for the film was struggles of his own with anxiety and this authenticity is what makes the movie so emotionally affecting. Whatever your gender, whatever your age and whether you were a shy kid or even if you weren’t, Kayla is instantly recognisable, but still unique, real and fully drawn.
The script is perfect, but it’s Fisher’s performance that’s at the heart of the movie. Stroppy but so likable (the scene in the car where she’s having a go at her dad for “being too quiet and looking weird and sad” is hilarious), incredibly vulnerable but also impressively brave, Kayla is ultimately a hopeful and almost heroic character in an incredibly confusing world. All the young cast are excellent and it’s a credit to them and to Burnham’s direction that the interactions feel so natural.
While Eighth Grade does talk about universal truths, it’s deeply grounded in the now. Kayla and her school mates are completely nonchalant during training about what to do in a school shooting. Sex education classes are clinical and biological, but when Kayla’s crush Aidan (Luke Prael – wonderfully awful) asks her if she gives blow jobs, it’s a disturbing YouTube tutorial she turns to in an attempt to learn how. And in the movie’s most distressing centrepiece sequence, Kayla is completely unprepared and unequipped to know how to behave.
Given how key this message is in the film, it’s ironic and a bit depressing that the film’s been given a 15 certificate in the UK – meaning actual eighth graders who are living through this reality aren’t actually allowed to watch it. It’s a massive shame, because although the movie is at times tense and alarming, its ultimate message is one of hope, support and understanding.
While Kayla’s life is difficult, it’s the central relationship between her and her father (Josh Hamilton – excellent) that provides the most moving sequence in the film. Delicately played, nuanced, understated and sincere – and far from encouraging kids to watch porn vids online – if anything Eighth Grade is a reminder for teens that your parents love you no matter what. Despite the harsh realities of teenage life in the social media era, this is an incredibly positive movie with a closing beat that delivers a powerful message for young people: give yourself a break.
Eighth Grade opens in the UK a day after Avengers: Endgame, which is likely to be the biggest cinema event of the decade. And there’s something perfect, beautiful, funny and fitting about that. Endgame might yet be a masterpiece (we’ll let you know when we’ve seen it), but there’s every chance a small story about big things, starring a little girl who becomes her own hero, will have more power and impact than a titan who can wipe out half the universe with the snap of his fingers. If you only see one movie this April, make it Eighth Grade.
Eighth Grade opens in UK cinemas on 26 April