D oes anyone ever really enjoy eighth grade? Maybe the jock bullies and junior predators and queen bees that seem to rule the roost are having a good time, and maybe the golden children who seem to enjoy the approval of every adult in the school are sorry to see this period of their life end, but for me and pretty much everyone I’ve ever known, it’s a time that you mainly hope to survive on the promise that better things life ahead.
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade gets as far inside the miserable aspects of eighth grade as I think it’s possible to go. Just seeing it up there on the screen is cathartic, and I suspect that that even the most fortunate kids in middle school will find something that rings true for them. When we meet Kayla (Elsie Fisher), she is leading a double life—when she makes YouTube videos she wears makeup and spouts self-help advice as if she were the confident person she aspires to be, while in real life she’s awkward, zit-faced, and hasn’t a clue how to navigate her way through the minefield of peer relationships.
Like many movies about the pre-adult years, Eighth Grade is all about the social scene rather than about the kinds of things that occupy the time of a lot of kids of that age, like going to class, doing your homework, and helping out with the family chores. Also like many teenager movies, it’s set in an unidentified suburb where there are gradations of wealth, but no one’s anything close to poor. It’s also worth noting that the heroine has done nothing to distinguish herself—as far as we know, she’s not particularly smart or athletic or talented, she’s just a kid who wants to fit in.
These choices that allows Burnham to focus on the emotional aspects of being an awkward outsider in a world where the only currency is “coolness,” and those who enjoy a higher ranking on that amorphous concept know they will lose status if they so much as acknowledge those who rank below them. Burnham does such a good job that you often feel like you are right inside Kayla’s head. His efforts are much aided by Anna Meredith’s score, which underlines and amplifies Kayla’s mood at every moment, registering the slights and snubs that wounds her as if they were mortal blows.
Kayla lives with her dad (Josh Hamilton), who loves her but hasn’t a clue how to help her through this time. It doesn’t help that he’s kind of shy and awkward himself, nor does it help that he’s apparently a complete stranger to the world of social media that plays such a key role in her existence. In fairness, she doesn’t make it easy for him, reacting with hostility and withdrawal to his (admittedly lame) attempts to reach her.. Her Mom is not in the picture and she appears to be an only child with no friends, so her existence is lonely indeed. The school authorities certainly don’t help, and in fact seem determined to make things worse—why else would they poll students with questions like who has the best eyes and who is the quietest, and announce the results in an assembly, then follow up by taking photographs of the “winners”?
Eighth Grade is Burnham’s first feature film, although he’s well-known as a comedian, has acted in both television and movies, and has directed several TV specials. It’s a fine debut effort that offers a different, and very revealing, look at a time of life that is often given the glossy, wish-fulfillment treatment. | Sarah Boslaugh