The creation of Eighth Grade puzzled me when I saw the first trailer. It’s a comedy about a socially awkward 13-year-old girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher) trying to survive her last week of middle school written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham. It’s also Burnham’s feature film debut, having previously directed a few standup comedy specials, including his own and Chris Rock’s most recent Netflix performance. Why a 27-year-old with a penchant for intensely dark comedy who has also predicted his own date of death wanted to tell a story about a clumsy middle school girl is a beyond me, but I’m extremely glad he did.
As mentioned above, the story follows Kayla, a normal girl with anxiety and self-esteem issues in her last few days of Eighth Grade. She’s not different from other students in her interest as she likes Snapchat, Instagram, makeup tutorials, and Pokemon. However, in her mind, she almost feel’s like a different species. Conversation is brutal for Kayla. She intensely rehearses a phone call or chit chat with a boy to prevent anything from going wrong. Something still goes wrong. Because she is so shy and anxious, no one really likes Kayla. No one really hates her either. She’s ignored by almost everyone and pushes out people who want to help, like her dad.
Director: Bo Burnham
Release Date: July 13, 2018
It’s not all bad though. Early on, Kayla goes to a popular girl’s birthday pool party. While she does endure an embarrassing gift-giving experience, later on she gains the confidence to sing karaoke in front of the other kids. This is an important moment for Kayla, one she can be proud of. These small moments of triumph lumped together with the turmoil help ground the film. It’s not just a downward spiral into misery for Kayla, but a series of ups and downs. There aren’t many ups, but they are there.
That “realness” and relatability helped me identify with Kayla’s struggles much more even if I’d never experienced them myself. I’m not a 13-year-old girl going through middle school in 2017 but I sure went through similar situations growing up. Chaotic pool parties, nosy parents, and first crushes are all presented with impeccable detail. It’s a thoroughly authentic portrayal of awkward adolescence, and that’s a good thing!
The film has a litany of awkward moments, all played to full comedic effect. Eighth Grade runs the gamut on the emotional spectrum, but there is almost always comedy adjacent to any scene. This movie is hilarious. For those unaware of Bo Burnham’s comedy, there’s a directness in his work that brings out the absurdity of a situation in a matter of fact way. For example, Kayla’s school has a school shooter preparedness drill. There is a stark juxtaposition between the serious nature of the event and the students’ and teachers’ reactions which can best be described as an all-consuming apathy. A short balding teacher clad in all black tactical gear holding an assault rifle “shoots” drama students while the other students don’t even pretend to pay attention. It’s funny how absurd it is in part because these are normal situations, not over the top versions of them. It feels authentic, making it all the more funny.
This authenticity also allows the film to present and tackle heady issues. Issues like anxiety disorders, isolation, and sexuality, are shown in understandable and believable ways. That’s not to say this film is always grounded when representing conflict. Technology’s effect on us is a constant vein running throughout the film. Constant close-ups of all the characters show them each in their own little world, consumed but protected in a bubble of their own creation.
Multiple scenes in the film show Kayla completely removed from reality, drowning in an onslaught of “You Go Girl!” Pop music and the perfect lives of Instagram stars even while eating dinner. But the film is nuanced. Instead of a blanket generalization about kids being on their phones too much, Burnham reveals that Kayla’s obsession with social media is as much a crutch as it is a comfort. Later on, she breaks her phone screen and continues using it despite getting cut by the broken glass. A clearer metaphor for unintentionally harming oneself has never existed.
Burnham is quite overt in his commentary, which is highly noticeable in the plain world he situates it in. At times it can get uncomfortable. Other times, it gets even worse. Without getting into spoilers, there is one extremely unsettling scene that is horrifying in its execution. At times the movie is heavy-handed in its message which can become emotionally exhausting. This is a rare film that deserves the genre comedy-drama. The film acknowledges these are real problems with important consequences. The middle schoolers are presented as full-fledged people just like the adults; their age does not make their problems or how those problems affect them any less important.
Eighth Grade does not belittle or sugar coat itself because it deals with children. The film respects both it’s subject matter and audience in portraying a complex picture of growing up. Little touches add so much; the tweens parrot memes and lines from Rick and Morty while teachers and parents are well-intentioned but tired and unable to grasp how the younger generations communicate. Each little moment builds up the narrative, showing the minefield of confusion, uncertainty, danger, and even joy that adolescence brings. Eighth Grade is very much the singular story of Kayla and the unique challenges she’s facing at the end of middle school, but the sincerity, humour, and frankness Burnham and crew used resonated with me in a way I didn’t expect a film about an Instagram obsessed 13-year-old would.