Review: ‘Eighth Grade’, Bo Burnham Reminds Us How Painful Middle School Really Was

My first thoughts after enduring comedian Bo Burnham’s stunning directorial debut Eighth Grade were “God damn eighth grade was a nightmare” and “No really, someone explain to me why middle school isn’t state sanctioned torture”? Those middle school years wedged like an arm in a vice between elementary and high school are when the worst damage to a person’s psyche can happen. Our bodies are changing, our hormones are flaring for the first time, and we have no idea who we want to be, should be, or can be. Burnham’s Eighth Grade is the most realistic depiction of those awkward middle school years ever on the big screen.

Of course, that level of realism is also quite painful. Even the funniest bits come from the realization that we probably felt the same way or acted as weird as Kayla (breakout star Elsie Fisher), the familiar protagonist trying to survive being the class misfit. Quiet and painfully shy, Kayla insists to herself and the viewers of her YouTube channel (there are no viewers) that she’s actually quite outgoing and the key to being popular is to just put yourself out there. Kayla’s dad (Josh Hamilton) is a source of encouragement, not that she wants to hear it from him, anyway. There’s Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), the cool girl in school, who Kayla wishes she was more like. There’s also a hot boy, Aiden (Luke Prael), that Kayla has a crush on, and Gabe (Jake Ryan), an overlooked friend who would probably be more Kayla’s speed.

All of these components are familiar to the genre, that much is true. What makes Burnham’s film unique is its place in this moment in time. Wile the archetypes we’ve definitely seen before, never have we seen them this way, as kids born fully into the social media age. In the case of Kennedy, she isn’t the typical mean girl ruining Kayla’s life through withering criticism. She barely acknowledges Kayla’s existence, and only invites her to her big birthday bash, over text mind you, because her mother forces her too. And even then she texts it in such a way that it seems like a heavy burden. This is what bullying looks like in the digital age. Being ignored at school is one thing, but to be a ghost over social media is to vanish completely. Kayla wanders through these final days before graduation wishing someone would notice that she exists, and hoping that high school will lead to better things. All of us who felt like outsiders during this confusing age, and I include myself in that, cling to the hope that high school is where we will finally blossom. It’s when people will finally realize how cool we really are.

Burnham dangles this hopeful possibility for Kayla, too, but it’s unclear if he actually feels that will happen for her. What’s clear is that he loves this character, and obviously feels an affinity for her where other filmmakers would have made her a pathetic punchline.  Fisher, who voiced Agnes in two Despicable Me movies, is of the perfect age to capture Kayla’s anxious mannerisms and emotions. When she finally does get a chance to talk to other kids, Kayla is either too defensive to take part, or too eager and says something embarrassing. Sometimes you just feel you can’t win, and every decision is the wrong one. As someone who went through school feeling exactly this way, and still carries some of that fear as an adult, Kayla’s indecisiveness hit very close to home.

 I expect Eighth Grade will be a quiet favorite to people who see a lot of Kayla in themselves.  It should be required viewing for elementary school kids about to make the leap to Intermediate, but not as some kind of cautionary tale. If anything, Burnham wants us to see Kayla as more than just a YouTube personality, a series of tweets, or a Snapchat. What she’s feeling is raw and true, and every moment of Eighth Grade rings with undeniable authenticity.

Rating: 4 out of 5