Eighth Grade is an honest and realistic look at that crossroad of life we come across before we begin high school. The directorial debut of Bo Burnham, a comedian who began his career on YouTube, this film is one of the more refreshing takes on this genre that I have seen in quite awhile. Led by what could be a breakout performance from its leading star, this premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival to positive word of mouth. In short, once again, A24 delivered on the goods with this film.
The story revolves around the last week of eighth grade for Kayla (Elsie Fisher). To put it mildly, it wasn’t the best year for her. She’s awkward, doesn’t have many friends, and spends most of her days on her phone or on her social media pages. After being voted by her fellow peers as being one of the most quiet students in school, Kayla does her best to break out of her shell and be more noticeable, all the while trying to navigate her final week at school.
As I said earlier in my opening paragraph, I suspect this will be Fisher’s breakout role (she previously voiced Agnes in the first two Despicable Me films). Fisher gets the awkwardness down to a capital T and makes her character feel like a living and breathing being. Whether she’s trying to stand out or gets an anxiety attack when forced to attend a fellow student’s birthday party Fisher is impressive with what she brought to the table. Watching this film, I could relate to this film since I was like Kayla in eighth grade. I remember being quiet and painfully awkward at times and didn’t know what to do. Josh Hamilton, playing Mark, Kayla’s father, also puts in good work as a single dad who’s doing his best in trying to connect with Kayla. The chemistry that both Fisher and Hamilton exhibited between one another is authentic and sincere as daughter and father.
For his first directing effort, Burnham does a good job in showcasing how kids these days are more glued to their phones and their social media accounts than interacting with one another in real life. Case in point, it’s evident that Kayla is more confident in doing her videos for her YouTube channel or spending an entire morning trying to get that perfect selfie for Instagram. Burnham never tries to make a statement, but shows us how the younger generation is more adapt to social media. Burnham shows skills in his direction by juxtaposing scenes to match whatever YouTube video Kayla is making, like talking about how to be more confident, being yourself, and so forth. The film also has a nice blend of awkwardness and drama. Since eighth grade is a strange time in our lives when we’re at that age where we slowly start to transition to adulthood. It’s quite effective, especially during a scene in the third act where Burnham plays with the tone all at once. The cinematography from Andrew Wehde felt realistic in that the film is set up so we are alongside Kayla throughout the film. Even though she’s basically a blank spot to the world, it’s as if Kayla’s in the center of the viewer’s world, and the look of the film made the world bigger than what it actually is. What seems trivial now looking back at it is the end all be all for Kayla. The dialogue is natural enough that it feels like real teenagers talking. The music Anna Meredith composed for the film is wonderful as well.
Even though the length of the film was just the right amount at 94 minutes, there were some storylines Burnham that could have been explored more that he introduces in the film. One minute, it’s about how Kayla is trying to get her crush, then the next, a different topic, and so forth. There are a lot of small moments he brings to the film that on it’s own, could possible fill out as a film in itself, but it would have been great to get some resolutions to these storylines.
Overall, Eighth Grade doesn’t try to be hip and cool, but gives a much more grounded look at life from an eighth grader’s point of view. As a first-time filmmaker, Burnham put in solid work in this, and I’m interested to see how his filmmaking career progresses from this film. This is Fisher’s film through and through, and a big part of this film’s success rests on her shoulders. Even though it’s a different generation, the growing pains that Kayla goes through is universal all around. It’s a charming film that shows us that no matter what, we’ll get through this awkward phase of life. I would definitely recommend checking this out in a theater when it opens up near you.