Eighth Grade is a surprisingly poignant look at healing and growing up, focusing on a young woman who does so in the age of the internet. While there are certainly laughs, Eighth Grade and newcomer Elsie Fisher will break your heart with earnestness and the brutal anguish of teenage isolation.
Fisher, at only age 14, is so endearing that whatever you think when you first meet her catchphrase-spouting Gen Z YouTuber, you won’t be able to help yourself from cheering and crying right along by the film’s end.
In Bo Burnham’s feature-length directorial debut, we meet Kayla (Fisher) as she completes her final week of, you guessed it, eighth grade. (Full disclosure: Burnham and I met a few times when we participated in the same high school theater competition.) She and her father (Josh Hamilton) live alone, and in many ways the movie can be read as a tacit acknowledgment of the reality that there is a handbook for how to be a teen girl, and not everyone gets a copy. With no mom, older sister, or best friend, Kayla has been teaching herself under the guise of teaching others, covering topics like “how to be confident” and “how to get out of your comfort zone” on her YouTube channel. Over the course of the week, we watch Kayla reckon with classmates’ perception of her, squirm under her father’s unconditional love, and ultimately come to some sort of understanding about what it means to “be yourself,” as she calls it in the first video of hers that we see.
From the start, Eighth Grade makes clear that it deals in authentic teenagerdom. The actors are real teens, and they look and sound like it. Viewers might wince over the “likes” and “ums” in Kayla’s opening video, verbal tics with a gendered history that are often used as pop culture shorthand for vapid young women. But here the audience is meant to interrogate their own cruelty and eventually understand the need to cheer earnestness. Why did we laugh at Kayla, who’s just an awkward kid trying to do her best? Where does that impulse come from?
The cute boy Kayla pines after is scrawny and weird, rather than brawn and poised. We only know that he’s the object of her affection because of her reaction and the music cue that plays when he comes on screen—he is otherwise indistinguishable from other pimple-faced kids on screen. Kayla’s own height was an excellent choice for a girl who mostly tries to be invisible, and we also see an eighth-grade boy dwarfed by their classmates when they visit the high school, both realities that rarely ends up on screen. And about those pimples: there are plenty of real ones to go around and braces too. No over the top headgear or acne-as-plot-device here, just the real day-to-day thing.
And these teens preoccupy themselves with authentically mundane kid behavior, like playing with their braces’ elastics, flipping their eyelids inside out, and that thing where you twist a water bottle until the cap pops off with a bang. This “younger generation” may have had snapchat since fifth grade, but they’re still kids, and that mostly means having friends, fighting with your parents, and being bored in class. This keen observational eye makes the world of Kayla’s middle school feel lived in, and even anonymous middle schoolers who are only on screen for a second feel incredibly well drawn.
Burnham, who also wrote the screenplay, shows a surprising amount of restraint and shocking insight into the lives of teenage girls. His script is almost as much a star as Elsie Fisher. Laughs are far sparser than one might guess from a comic with a couple of standup tours under his belt, but they serve the story well. He goes for the better payoff of Kayla’s reaction to an instructional blow job video, rather than the cheap shot of showing the video itself. The comedic sensibility of Eighth Grade punctuates the stilted and the overly sincere of Kayla’s life. By nature narrative films are slower paced and with fewer punchlines than standup, but Eighth Grade is closer to a quiet indie than the laugh-a-minute punchline-delivery system from Burnham’s one-time mentor, Judd Apatow.
As a director, Burnham is passable but not nearly as stunning as he is a writer, though that’s admittedly a high bar. Perhaps his best choice here, other than casting the pitch perfect Elsie Fisher, is using actual screens and apps from real phones and computers, and that specific, lovely glow is worth it. So too is a clear understanding of how the platforms really work, unlike other writers and directors, who usually come across more like the movie’s off-kilter adults dabbing and claiming, “it’s gonna’ be lit!”
Curiously, however, Kayla goes on Tumblr and follows pop culture properties with serious fandoms, like Rick and Morty, Hamilton, the Harry Potter series (there’s a golden snitch keychain on her backpack), and Disney movies. She doesn’t appear to have any real community online. It seems unrealistic that she wouldn’t have found any friends that way—it’s much more common for young women to have a thriving community online, but no one they feel close to in their own town or school. It’s worth wondering if Burnham simply lacks the knowledge and experience to know that that would be the case.
Other than that misstep though it was a surprisingly successful portrayal of a time that feels so gendered. While everyone seems uncomfortable during middle school, there’s something about seeing the lines where Kayla’s ill-fitting bathing suit digs into her skin, or hearing a guy make sure he’ll wind up alone in a car with her, that is unique to the way girls go through this time, and it was captured astoundingly well here.
In many respects, Eighth Grade could be watched as a companion piece to Lady Bird. Both great films take seriously the daily trials of white suburban girls, centering their relationships with a parent and their own self-esteem rather than focusing on an idealized teen soulmate, or anything apocalyptic. The strength of Eighth Grade is that it makes us feel how high the (nominally low) stakes are to Kayla. Social isolation is real and painful and in middle school, everything feels dire. There’s plenty of discourse on how The Youth spend too much time with screens, but Eighth Grade is more interested in understanding Kayla’s story on her terms than judging it on someone else’s.