Eighth Grade is a fantastic film. Rarely does one get the pleasure of seeing a movie that’s as innocent but guilty, monotonous but interesting, and unremarkable yet remarkable, as this. It’s an incredibly engaging feature, which is surprising given that the main character is portrayed as a totally average, humdrum middle schooler.
The film, directed by the multitalented Bo Burnham (who is usually best known for his standup comedy) and starring Elsie Fisher, follows Kayla Day, a bumbling, quiet, and awkward teenager stumbling her way through the last week of eighth grade. Entirely from her point of view, the audience watches her navigate through multiple stress-inducing social minefields, such as a pool party and announcements for class superlatives (mortifyingly, Kayla receives “most quiet”). Burnham has created a film that is “hyper-modern”—this is no retrospective look at eighth grade through the rosy glasses of the ’90s. Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter (not Facebook, cause “no one uses THAT anymore”) are on full display, and their ramifications are explored and discussed.
The best decision that Burnham made when directing this film was to make sure that the focus never strayed from Kayla. A consequence of this is that the amount of exposition in the film is surprisingly small. There’s never an overarching, five-minute-long monologue detailing the setting and characters, as can often be seen in coming-of-age stories such as this. Instead, the progression of the film is decidedly disjointed, perhaps mirroring the thoughts of the main character. The audience is always hearing Kayla’s opinions, fears, and beliefs on whatever situation she’s facing at the current time. She hides very little, causing the viewers to truly connect with whatever she’s thinking or doing. It’s an interesting and engaging dynamic, and allows the audience to feel less like an outsider watching (and possibly screaming advice to the socially inept girl on screen) and more as though they are Kayla, in a way. Be prepared to squirm, cringe, laugh, and cry with the star as the movie progresses. Rarely does such an outwardly innocent and inconsequential film make an audience feel vulnerable in such a visceral way.
A precise and well-executed balancing act permeating the film is how Burnham uses comedy. The movie is raucously funny at multiple points, which is good considering comic relief is very welcome given the amount of excruciatingly awkward situations there are. Yet, it never devolves into a purely slapstick affair. There are scenes in the movie that are very sad, and they are made even more poignant by the contrast with the funnier moments. Special note should be given to the interactions between Kayla and her overwhelmed father, played by Josh Hamilton. His helplessness in dealing with his daughter’s issues is similar to Kayla’s problems interacting with her peers, and their relationship always feels believable and important.
All of the cast members’ performances are excellent. Much has been made of the star, Elsie Fisher, for good reason. She does a wonderful job bringing the script to life with a very believable teenage flair. Her delivery of some of the awkward comedic lines is spot on, although her facial expressions and movements during the many periods of silence are arguably more impressive. Nearly everyone will relate to and love the character of Kayla Day. The entire cast deserves praise, though, for how believable they make the movie seem. Burnham clearly did his research and consulted with the best sources, because there are no unintentional “fellow kids” moments to be seen. All the performances are achingly genuine and relatable.
Eighth Grade is a film that will strongly resonate with anyone who has gone through eighth grade (so … everyone). Funny, engaging, heartbreaking, and wonderful, it is an indisputable triumph of a film that everyone should go see.
Featured Image by A24 Films