‘Eighth Grade’ Review: One of the Year’s Best Movies Heartbreakingly Captures the Hell of Adolescence
It was a summer during middle school. A popular girl invited me to her pool party. I was scared out of my mind, mostly to wear a bathing suit in front of the other kids. Then things seemed to turn out alright: we splashed around, ate snacks, posed for a photo someone’s mom took; I left feeling like I’d truly fit in with the cool girls at school. When I got home, I realized that one of them, who had oddly been extra nice to me and spent the day swimming behind me, had tied my hair into a series of knots. It took my mom hours to untangle the mess, but worse than the matted hair was the horrifying embarrassment of realizing I hadn’t made a new friend; I was simply the butt of some cruel joke.
Watching Eighth Grade, comedian writer and director Bo Burnham’s feature debut, is a lot like stepping into a time machine and traveling back to that traumatizing pool party. When Elsie Fisher’s super shy 13-year-old Kayla goes to a popular girl’s birthday pool party — reluctantly invited by the girl per her mom’s insistence — she nearly has a panic attack. She scuttles into the bathroom to change into her one-piece swimsuit and grips the sink, hyperventilating and shaking. Once she steps outside — her arms sheepishly crossed to hide her body as skinnier, acne-free girls run around in bikinis — she courageously gets into the pool. It’s as painfully awkward and uncomfortable as you could imagine; the mean girls make fun of Kayla’s gift, she fumbles her words when talking to her crush, and anxiously calls her dad to pick her up. “The party is over,” she lies. “Just come get me. But don’t come inside.” Somehow Burnham, a 27-year-old dude, has made an insightful, heartfelt, and realistic movie about what it’s like to come of age as a teenage girl.
We first meet Kayla as the self-assured girl she projects to the outside world in a series of motivational videos on her YouTube Channel. The films opens on a pixelated close-up of Fisher’s face talking to the camera during her last week of eighth grade. “The topic of today’s video is being yourself,” she says. “And it’s, like, aren’t I always being myself? And yeah, for sure. But it’s like, not changing yourself to impress someone else.” Then Kayla puts on makeup, styles her hair, and crawls back into bed to post a filtered “woke up like this” selfie to Snapchat.
While the middle schooler has a strong sense of self, she’s not as confident as the advice-giving girl in those videos. She’s often sitting alone at school, never seen with any friends, and while she insists in videos that she’s not shy or quiet, she literally gets awarded “Most Quiet” at her school’s end-of-year awards. Despite the deep well of insecurities and anxieties holding her back from showing the other kids how funny and unique she really is, it’s modern technology that allows her to express the ideal version of herself.
Burnham’s movie is as much about the total hellscape of middle school and young adolescence as it is about the internet. The stand-up comedian initially rose to fame with his musical comedy videos on YouTube, and through Eighth Grade he deftly explores the relationship between young identity and social media. Kayla spends hours glued to her phone and laptop, scrolling through Harry Potter memes on Tumblr, relying on YouTube for sex-ed research, and chatting with other kids via Instagram DM. One hilarious sequence finds her dad (John Hamilton in an immensely tender performance) trying and failing to talk to Kayla at the dinner table while her headphones are in.
Watching those sequences took me back to my own digital world as a preteen, where I chatted with crushes on AIM, expressed myself in away messages full of angsty song lyrics, and found friendships in online message boards. The internet was considerably different 14 years ago when I was Kayla’s age, but, like Kayla, it also served as my outlet from the confusing and lonely whirlwind of middle school.
Eighth Grade is one of the year’s best films so far, and no doubt marks a triumph for Burnham as a first-time filmmaker, but it’s Fisher who brings the movie to life. While she’s had a few onscreen roles before, and previously voiced Agnes in the Despicable Me movies, Eighth Grade is her breakout performance, and it’s a magnificent one. The now-15-year-old actress shot the film immediately after she graduated middle school, and you can feel the authenticity in her every trembling movement, hesitant step, and stuttered word. Watching her doesn’t feel like watching an actor playing a kid, but like you’re truly witnessing a nervous 13-year-old as she figures herself out. Fisher shoots Kayla’s father icy sarcastic remarks with a hilarious sharpness just as well as she juggles the film’s weightier moments, most notably one that finds her terrified and trapped in the backseat of a high school boy’s car.
There’s a good amount of sadness and loneliness across Kayla’s story, with a few standout sequences that’ll guarantee tears. But Eighth Grade is also achingly funny, particularly in how Burnham captures the specificity of that age. It’s the small stuff that makes you feel like you’re back in middle school again: the way an auditorium of jittery kids crack jokes and make fart noises during an assembly; how each time Kayla sees her crush, everything moves in slow-mo as pounding electronic music blares; how a nerdy kid epically fails when trying to show off an underwater handstand; how a teacher tries to relate to his students by doing the dab.
Burnham is uniquely tuned into the minds and behaviors of his young characters and their hyper-active, hormonally-charged world. For a gloriously funny and heartbreaking 94 minutes, you too will feel like you’re 13 again.