Eighth Grade (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” is a searing look at how it feels like to be a middle schooler who yearns for social approval and ultimately acceptance. It is able to be funny, empathetic, honest, and critical often in the same moment without having the need to introduce a typical story arc where everyone, including the audience, feels elated by the end. Life simply goes on because it must; it does not stop or make concessions for anybody just because he or she feels like an outcast. I admired its willingness to simply show rather than console.
Elsie Fisher plays Kayla Day, a lonely eighth grader who makes YouTube videos even though no one watches them. (One of her videos has one view, however.) She specializes in giving advice, like learning to be more confident or how to take more risks, even though she herself is socially awkward. Fisher portrays Kayla with such authenticity that I wondered if it was her first role—not because she is green but because nearly every moment of her portrayal is raw and convincing. I am convinced she has a bright future because she can play natural with seeming ease; far too many younger entertainers lean on quirks or behavior to paint a character. Or worse—they have to look beautiful to be in character. Fisher does not. She simply is and that is invaluable.
I enjoyed the film for its heartfelt moments. Standouts involve Kayla’s interactions with her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who wishes to know her daughter more even though sometimes it is like talking to a wall. (She is allowed to have her cellphone with the headphones on at the dinner table.) It is ingenious how Burnham’s screenplay and the camera manage to put us into the teenager’s headspace so effectively that we forget—and she forgets, too—how lucky she is to have a parent who wishes to be more involved.
But therein lies the material’s greatness: when you are in middle school, you feel everything is dramatic and every change could make or break your social life. It is all about you; you are laser-focused in trying to control everything even though none of it is really under your control in the first place. Or, at least that was how I felt when I was in Kayla’s shoes a decade and a half ago. Sure, there is social media now, but when it comes to that need—I suspect nothing has really changed. The longing to be liked is permanent in most people.
Even the portrayal of other middle schoolers in the story is never as cruel as they show in mainstream movies where popular kids go out of their way to bully. Sometimes one’s peers are popular for no reason. That’s just the way things are and I enjoyed that the writing is insightful enough to show that on screen. Lesser pictures so often feel the need to provide a reason why bullies bully or why popular kids are popular. Here, things just are. When things change, they simply must. No explanation is needed.
Although the target audience is people who have already gone through middle school, I think sixth to eighth graders are likely to find it entertaining, too. The reason is because the protagonist is so humanized, everyone is bound to recognize something in themselves in Kayla. We are right there with her when she feels ugly but looks in the mirror anyway, when she feels extremely lonely while liking her classmates’ Instagram pictures, when she feels so frustrated and helpless that nothing is going her way, all she can do is scream on the inside. At the same time, we are there, too, when someone else likes her for who she is without makeup or Snapchat filters. We may not find ourselves in the same situations as Kayla, but the feelings captured on film are timeless and universal.