Comedian Bo Burnham makes his feature length directorial debut with Eighth Grade, a touching coming of age story that is also the funniest and freshest film yet of summer 2018. Burnham, who also wrote the script, has made a film about being a teenager in the social media age that captures all the anxieties that go along with it. Elsie Fisher turns in a brave performance as Kayla Day, who as the film begins is entering the final week of 8th grade. This is not a plot heavy film, but there is an arc of sorts as we watch Kayla evolve and come to terms with her middle school experience and prepare for the high school years that lie ahead.
All the young actors are excellent, and Josh Hamilton is the definition of both patience and compassion as Kayla’s father Mark. Some audiences will find Burnham’s techniques trying, especially early in the film. The first 20 minutes or so are montage heavy and, aside from the opening monologue, mostly dialogue free. Watching a teenager scroll through social media timelines and like various posts isn’t the most compelling stuff, but it is important in the way it develops Kayla’s isolation. Burnham appears to be a critic of social media. His script seemingly admits social media’s place and usefulness, while pointing out that it is a sorry substitute for the in-person company of others.
The film’s main weaknesses are the occasional coming of age tropes that it succumbs to, though admittedly without giving them much screen times. There is also a lack of balances between comedy and drama. Most of the first half of the film is one great joke after another, while the midsection and final act turn much more serious. Overall these are minor issues though and are overshadowed by the film’s realism and wit, and Fisher’s awards worthy performance. It succeeds everywhere that last year’s good but overrated Lady Bird fell short, and it also doesn’t overstay its welcome with an unnecessary final 15 minutes. This is certain to be added to my repeat viewing rotation as soon as it hits Vudu.
When I heard that Bo Burnham had written and directed a film about an adolescent girl navigating her last year of middle school, skeptical doesn’t even begin to cover how I was feeling. After all, Bo Burnham is a man who never experienced middle school as a girl. Logically, that means he wouldn’t understand the feelings of anger, desperation, and self-consciousness that young women often face during that time of their lives. My original feeling of skepticism could not be further from how I felt when leaving the theater today.
Eighth Grade spins the tale of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), an adolescent girl preparing to leave middle school behind and enter the unknown world of high school. Elsie Fisher’s debut performance was so raw and real. At times, so raw that it was cringeworthy, in the way that interactions with girls of this age often are. I very much appreciated the fact that she is a real teenage girl, and not a thirteen-year-old that does her makeup better than I do.
The film uses social media to further the plot in a way that we haven’t necessarily seen done before. Kayla’s use of social media helps to show the audience the true sense of anxiety she feels about socializing with her peers. I really appreciated that this film focused on her anxieties without ever using that word. Children her age often don’t have the language to describe the feelings they are experiencing. Burnham approaches this very real problem in a very practical and realistic way.
This film won’t be for everyone. If you are someone who enjoys a plot heavy film, this one may not be for you. Throughout the film we see Kayla shed her middle school persona and develop into a more confident and optimistic young woman. I would argue that this film does a better job of showing the true struggles of young women than last year’s Lady Bird, or at least it did so in a more impactful way. If you are like me and are still trying to understand what the hell kids are talking about now a days, give this film a try.