Film review: ‘Eighth Grade’ reminds us of pain, joy from those bittersweet teenage years


A quarter-century after my own terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad eighth-grade year, I relived it to a blistering yet nostalgic degree through Kayla Day’s eyes in Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade,” and though all the typical dramas and traumas of that hormonal jungle has expanded into the simulacrum of social media, the physical and emotional reactions of teenagers remains essentially unchanged.

Lead actress Elsie Fisher gives one of the most authentic, heartfelt, raw performances of the year as a girl immersed in the extremes of middle-school adolescence, navigating the sweeping highs of love and lust with the crushing lows of invisibility and rejection. This is not a coming-of-age film about a girl finding her voice, but rather realizing its worth, regardless of the approval of others.

Not a moment of Burnham’s film is wasted, nor a wince out of focus as Kayla juggles her “yous” (school you, movie you, art you) in pursuit of her “real you.” She creates her own videos on a YouTube vlog, a sweetly rambling mixture of self-affirmations and advice on issues such as confidence and taking risks.

Kudos to set decorator Henriette Vittadini for creating a teen’s bedroom that serves as both a nucleus of safety and fount of her creative process. Her videos have both the emotional punch of diary entries but also a scientific method of goals and identifiable steps. She prepares basic notes as the foundation for her stream-of-consciousness chatter but there is an obvious scaffolding that progresses in complexity as she talks: she is figuring things out as she goes.

As Fisher stops and starts, repeats, rephrases, and clarifies, we see the wheels turning behind her eyes and a wholeness to her entries that contrasts all the incomplete, fractured, awkward, unexpected parts of her daily reality in middle school.

Fortunately, Kayla has an emotional intelligence far beyond her years that, while not helping her awkwardness much at present, will allow her to benefit off her preteen experiences for years to come in some creative pursuit or another.

In the last assembly of the year when the eighth grade superlative “awards” are named, she wins Most Quiet to her chagrin.

Quiet is often confused with shy, and Kayla “chooses not to speak” at school. School is an environment with parameters beyond her control, whereas her posts (on Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, etc.) are curated, filtered, edited, and/or catalogued.

While she might be more reticent in social situations, Fisher’s large, blue eyes command the screen, evoking all the raging emotions and hypersensitivity flowing through every 14-year-old: painful embarrassments, self-consciousness, constant anxiety, hormonal urges. We feel her cringes, the hard knot in her throat and butterflies in her stomach, the awkwardness of limbs growing at an uneven rate and the clumsy attempts to hide blemishes and baby fat. We are witnessing all the familiar points that we experienced ourselves, those old wounds that have long healed but still pang every now and then.

Only when a young actress like Fisher — reminiscent of Jodie Foster, Molly Ringwald, and recently Saoirse Ronan — possesses the maturity of self-awareness and courage to show the real alongside the filtered do we appreciate this shared experience.

After a decade teaching middle-schoolers, one thing I noticed about those adolescent years is that it is a world of extremes: of being yourself in a carefully curated, precisely arranged way; of laboring for hours to look effortless; of being confident without making it look like you’re trying hard.

Parents, such as Kayla’s goofy but sweet father Mark (Josh Hamilton), are necessary to sustain your outward persona through funding your appearance and lifestyle, but how their presence in your sphere is annoying! They are indicators that you will not be yourself forever, but what you would give anything to avoid (at the moment).

There are moments of beauty that seem immortal, as when a cute boy named Aiden (Luke Prael) walks into the room and Kayla hears a symphony of pulsing beats that stimulate every atom of her form (composer Anna Meredith connects with these moments brilliantly).

Both cinematographer Andrew Wehde and editor Jennifer Tilly capture the kudzu existence of a 14-year-old, especially when it comes to their concept of time: at once infinite and urgent, there is a frenzied race to grow up (to what end is never understood or agreed upon) and yet kids that are four years older may very well be 50.

Kayla confronts scary situations — from a popular girl’s pool party to the unwanted advances of a high-school boy — at her own pace and with a tenuous but steady aplomb. As much as she is disappointed that her vlog posts don’t earn more followers, they are actually building her self-image and confidence, and the steady support and encouragement of her father is ultimately recognized as the type of audience we all rely on to grow and improve.

Together, Burnham and Fisher remind us of all the pain and joy behind the real.

“Eighth Grade” (2018)

STARRING Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Catherine Oliviere, Luke Prael, Jake Ryan, Emily Robinson

DIRECT0R Bo Burnham