Film Review: Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham’s funny and heartwarming 'Eighth Grade' is also a deeply serious film about female adolescence in the age of social media, with plenty of casual wisdom to spare.
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Removing the glossy Snapchat filter from early teenage years, writer-director Bo Burnham’s tender and truthful Eighth Grade nurtures the often-ignored scars of female adolescence that carefully assembled social media feeds don’t show. This is an astonishing filmmaking debut from Burnham, a renowned comedian as well as a musician—you might secretly wonder how a young male not only captured the point of view of an eighth-grade girl so exactly, but also expressed it with such emotional precision. Whatever the secret formula to his experiential accuracy and unexpectedly inventive directorial eye is, the outcome is a deeply serious coming-of-age film that is only light and charming on the surface. As Burnham delves into his disarming protagonist’s day-to-day—the awkward, lonely but infinitely likeable Kayla (Elsie Fisher)—the level of insight he expresses is bound to catch you off-guard.

Despite coming with a generous side of heartwarming laughs and tears, Eighth Grade frequently discomforts the audience with the horrors of Kayla’s isolation in the age of instantly gratifying technology. Aided by Anna Meredith’s ironically alarming synthesized score, the funny but terrifying social-anxiety sensation Burnham conveys feels all too real. Phone-clutching middle-school kids walk in claustrophobic hallways like zombies, an out-of-nowhere active-shooter drill churns our insides, and a pool party looks like it might turn into a bloodbath in mere minutes. Thankfully, though, Kayla is no Carrie—she doesn’t shoot invisible daggers out of her eyes to get even with her too-cool-for-school tormentors. (Being incessantly busy on their mobile devices, they wouldn’t take the slightest bit of notice, anyway.) Instead, Kayla reaches for another method as part of her desperate urge to belong: On her painfully unpopular YouTube channel, she gives out free life advice to offset her lack of ability in the very areas she aims to educate others about.

When we first meet Kayla, looking energetic and self-assured, it is inside of a computer screen. “Being yourself! What does that mean? Am I not always being myself?” she observes confidently, before offering her thoughts on how to make others see and like the real you. If only it were so easy. Once Kayla steps away from the online sheen, exposing her shyness, self-conscious posture and blemished face, we immediately grasp the fakeness of her cheerful social-media presence. Smartly, though, Burnham doesn’t ask for our pity. Instead, he compassionately and carefully leads us into his lead character’s curated online existence, contrasting it with her real-life remoteness. When Kayla preaches about various self-esteem topics as a way of self-therapy—one day, it’s confidence as a choice; the next day, it’s putting oneself out there—we begin to detect the unmistakable self-negotiation between her dual worlds. In her videos (which she ends with the cutesy catchphrase “Gucci”), Kayla at first sounds like she is talking in circles without actually saying much. But thanks to Burnham’s smart writing (his stand-up expertise certainly comes in handy), her words add up to pockets of everyday acumen no one is too old to take to heart. Understanding this in a profound sense is her concerned, sometimes lovably clueless single father Mark (Josh Hamilton).

Fisher scores a breakthough in the role of Kayla—she basically shoulders the difficult task of playing two separate but interrelated characters, online and off, with the same poignancy. Burnham colors her character with additional facets, like the spot-on (and sometimes hilarious) portrayal of her sexual awakening and her gradual maturing with the help of a pair of thoughtful new friends willing to accept her with unconditional kindness. (Jake Ryan in the role of the nerdy Gabe will absolutely steal your heart.) Burnham also boldly brushes shoulders with the #MeToo movement when Kayla barely escapes a selfish older boy’s emotional manipulation. (Fisher is a revelation in this particular scene.) Kids these days don’t have it easy—how are any of them supposed to find their voices when they are expected to contribute to persistent online noise and reflect a perfect image? Burnham doesn’t claim to have an answer. But through a warm father-daughter heart-to-heart towards the end of Eighth Grade, he promises the young ones that things will get better.