When you’re fourteen years old, everything is heightened – your emotions, your hormones, your skewed sense of self, your disdain for your parents, and everything in between. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is a stylized character study in that heightened reality of troubled, anxious youth. It is intimately personal and excruciatingly universal. The audience is all at once a fourteen year old girl, her worried and helpless father and an uncomfortable outside observer. It is a beautiful film rooted in shared human experience, tying an eighth grade girl’s coming-of-age to the modern world of internet anxiety and antisocial socializing that we’ve all fallen prey to in one form or another, even as adults.
For Eighth Grade’s protagonist, Kayla (Elsie Fisher), social anxiety is a constant reality, but you wouldn’t be able to tell if you only knew her through her rarely watched YouTube account where she freely talks about the issues plaguing adolescents her age. Burnham paints a visceral picture of the difference between our inner and outer lives; the way we see ourselves versus the way we present ourselves to the world. The story is impressively simple. We follow Kayla during her last week of eighth grade, just has she has one final chance to make an impression on her classmates before diving into the even more treacherous waters of high school.
Her school is populated by all the usual suspects: the popular girls, who, though wanting to ignore Kayla, the weird quiet girl, are forced to include her by their ignorant parents. These popular girls break the mean girl stereotype and instead of acting the part of the aggressive antagonist, play the more realistic role of the ambivalent and indifferent teens wrapped up in their own vapid pursuits. There is also the cute love interest, Aiden (Luke Prael), whose characterization in this film is hilariously and meticulously detailed. Despite certain adolescent tropes being filled, Burnham never falls into stereotypes or generalities. Every character is vibrant and follows their own path, not just in service of the protagonist.
The relationship at the heart of the film, Kayla and her father Mark, played magnificently by Josh Hamilton, lays the groundwork for the emotional storyline. If there is an official list of best movie dads of all time, Mark will surely be gunning for one of the top spots. Kayla herself is unabashedly raw, as is Fisher playing her. Burnham doesn’t let the fourteen-year-old girl off the hook. We feel Burnham’s own deep laden anxiety seeping through Fisher’s words, and the agony she faces in the film becomes a conduit of shared experience with the audience and the artist.
Above the sheer brilliance of writing in the film, Burnham’s aesthetic makeup tells its own emotional story. There is a lot of shock value music, sharp cuts, and perspectives that keep the film moving at a rapid pace, but beyond this flare is a careful consideration of style in regard to comedy, tone, time, place, attitude, and emotion. It’s heavily rooted in Generation Z, and the stylistic choices reflect that, but they also show an attention to cinematic impact.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Eighth Grade is a coming-of-age story, but one that goes beyond the typical plotline of girl becoming woman or young adult. Kayla matures in this film and comes into her own, in a sense; however, Burnham has created a sort of microaggression coming-of-age, a flash in the pan of experience, one so small that has the power to change someone forever, even if in small ways.