Eighth Grade, written and directed by comedian and first time filmmaker Bo Burnham, is a portrait of adolescence that rings truer than any coming-of-age film I’ve seen in some time. It centres on Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an introverted yet self-determined seventh grader who’s on the precipice of eighth grade but more crucially high school. The film covers the week leading into this transition, bottling up every potential moment of awkwardness and embarrassment that we might’ve experienced ourselves at the same age.
Burnham made a name for himself as a YouTube comedian and is clearly shrewd about how social media plays a role in this current generation of teens and pre-teens. Kayla makes YouTube videos like Burnham did, and he uses her videos as a framing device for how she approaches school and its social challenges. In the videos she plays the role of the person she wishes she could be around others – out-going, effervescent, laidback. And it’s this juxtaposition – between what she aspires to be like and how she actually is – that makes Eighth Grade so painfully, awkwardly true-to-life.
Kayla often looks to the past to make sense of her present and so the videos she makes seem to act as a form of therapy for her. But even as the internet can be used as a tool for self-actualisation, Burnham also recognises the unhealthy fixations it enables. She‘s always buried in her phone, scrolling for hours through Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr. This only exacerbates her anxieties, projecting unrealistic images into her mind about how she should look and behave.
Josh Hamilton is very likeable as her well-meaning, hopelessly supportive father who handles her like someone would a Fabergé egg. It’s hard to know what he could do or say to ease her growing pains and yet we understand that what Kayla is going through is something that feels impossible to make sense of when you’re at that age. Elsie Fisher, who channels this confusion in her every movement, gives a performance of such vulnerability that it’s hard to believe that her experiences of adolescence haven’t been comparable to that of her character’s.
Although going back to the eighth grade through Kayla’s perspective often proves a squirm-inducing experience, Burnham‘s wise enough to balance the film’s more anxious parts out with moments of warmth. Kayla’s victories, however small, feel momentous to her as well as us because they’re hard-won. The growths, the setbacks - all of it feels like the beginning and end of the world when you’re thirteen. Eighth Grade is only as incisive as it is because it understands this so well.