Eighth grade is a strange year for most. It’s a time when you’re firmly lodged between the conflicting pulls of childhood and adolescence, when hormones escalate every menial interaction to 11, and when a bad day can seem like the definitive end of the world. It’s also probably the worst single year of your life- it was for me, and it most definitely is for Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), the 13-year-old star of YouTube personality Bo Burnham’s aptly named directorial debut Eighth Grade.
We first meet Kayla in an extended close-up as she records a new video for her self-help YouTube channel, stuttering through her points at a snail’s pace with enough “ums” and “likes” to pass around the theater as popcorn. It’s excruciatingly unbearable and ridiculously cringe-worthy, but her MacBook camera doesn’t judge, and Burnham certainly doesn’t either. Burnham’s keen eye for curious, objective observation- and his refusal to shut it- is ultimately what transcends Eighth Grade from a passable coming of age drama to a great one.
In another early scene, a crane shot captures dozens of eighth grade students sitting in an auditorium, every single one of them on their cell phone as they tediously await an assembly. From a bird’s eye view, the overwhelming clarity of this point is reached instantaneously: an entire generation of young people are growing up in a world where staring at your cell phone for hours of the day is completely normal. The shot isn’t in the slightest critical, however. Burnham is a millennial, after all, and the honest neutrality of the point he reaches in such a brief image is remarkably refreshing.
Much is to be said about Elsie Fisher’s marvelous portrayal of youth, which absolutely carries every moment of the film. I can’t recall a single performance that so sublimely encapsulates what it means to be 13 and awkward, and judging from Fisher’s own online essay about anxiety, it’s clear she brought many of her own insecurities to the role. It’s an incredibly brave performance, with every pimple and voice crack under a consistently intense microscope by the omnipresent camera. Her goofy dad, played by Josh Hamilton, is also wonderful, a hilarious bundle of every cute, embarrassing parent trope you could imagine. The two of them share a tender moment near the end, a sweet conversation of fatherly comfort that rivals Michael Stuhlbarg’s breathtaking (and admittedly much subtler) scene in Call Me By Your Name last year.
Social media plays as prominent a role in Eighth Grade as it does in real eighth grade. Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube all serve as collective outlets for Kayla’s yearning for acceptance and simultaneously as her shield from the real world. Perhaps never before has a film so fairly portrayed the multifaceted nature of social media. Unlike Ingrid Goes West, which exclusively satirized the intense loneliness that social media can evoke, Eighth Grade depicts both the healthy ways in which the Internet allows Kayla a means to express herself, and in equal measures the negative habits it reinforces as well. Her YouTube channel, sparse with viewers, serves as her online diary, allowing her to release her pent-up thoughts and feelings in an environment that’s comfortable to her. She does have a negative relationship with social media too, however, isolating herself in her room for hours of the night to stare at disingenuous depictions of her peers’ lives and by extension, receiving the false message that she’s a loser and an outcast.
If nothing else, Eighth Grade is honest. Perhaps even too honest for comfort’s sake. Every piece of dialogue retains the retrospective embarrassment of the opening scene, laden with enough cringe and social horror to travel to the moon and back. More than harmless social anxiety though, the film brings a unique authenticity of growing up in 2018, from the chilling banality of a school shooting drill to an alarming scene of a high school creep sexually imposing himself onto Kayla. The equal dramatic weight placed on these much more serious incidents and harmless social encounters had me initially questioning Burnham’s writing, but in hindsight it’s precisely what makes the script brilliant. We’re in Kayla’s shoes, and the innocent gravitas she brings to her life is how we too experience it.
Bo Burnham has undoubtedly tapped into something great and genuine here, but how Eighth Grade will hold up in the future is yet to be seen. Will the film continue to speak to future youth, or will it forever remain a relic of 2010s adolescence, an awkwardly nostalgic memory of a generation glued to their cracked iPhone screens and dog-face selfies? Only time will tell, but I think either result will be just as thrilling to witness in thirty years. Maybe, just maybe, this will be our time capsule of growing up in the Internet age.