Bo Burnham’s debut film Eighth Grade begins as outsider Kayla wraps up the unheralded school year of its title, solitary and not so hopeful about the impending high school years to come. To mark the occasion, her class is given their sixth grade time capsules, decorated and filled with an already dated optimism. Hers calls out from the unfathomably long distance of a few years time like a stranger, “To the coolest girl in the world”. Kayla doesn’t feel so cool, lesser so in the shadow cast by her own former earnestness.
Like that pink glittery box reaching out in kindness to a more grown Kayla’s, Eighth Grade plays out with an immediacy that begs kindness to our past, present, and future selves. While Burnham populates the film with contemporary specificity, like the crucial hierarchy of social media platforms and the micro-divisions between teen years in often generalized age groups, its insights shine with a truth all too uncomfortably relatable. It remains true that the gateway to the universal is through the specific, but Burnham crafts a film to make our own adolescent horrors come flooding back through any accessible branch of Kayla’s struggle.
Its miracle though is how it urges compassion for the moments we would like to forget, or dissociate from the person we believe ourselves to be today that truly is just still that same scared kid. Kayla’s most heartbreaking trait is her most universal: the need to be accepted and to fit in. As she tries to ingratiate to the cool girl fold or cope with panic-inducing minefields like bathing suits and boys, Burnham approaches her without condescension or reductive pacification. By taking her seriously, he gives us permission to take our younger selves and our anxieties with a holistic eye lost to time and experience.
It helps to have a bracingly funny and convicted performer playing Kayla as the breakthrough Elsie Fisher. For all of Kayla’s defeated interiority, Fisher never retreats for her character’s long stretches of silence or monosyllabic timidness. Instead, she is as revealing in Kayla’s awkwardly verbose YouTube recordings as when the camera lingers on her reflective moments. In her comic and emotional astuteness, Fisher delivers a performance as viscerally realized as they come, elevating the film past its average coming of age tale benchmarks to an invigorating character study. Her hand feels as authorial as Burnham’s.
While Eighth Grade falls into overly familiar plot points and structuring for this kind of story, its strongest elements are more richly uncommon. Most valuable is that Kayla’s female loner perspective allows the film to explore some uncharted territory for the genre, particularly when Kayla’s willingness to be liked is met with patriarchal oppression. That Burnham can achieve this without the trappings of the male gaze or preachy, reductive patness is further proof of the wide reach of his holistic approach.
The film’s active sincerity is another of its mighty attributes, and it at least still convinces in the times when it stretches that sincerity past the limits of its realism. As Kayla’s doting father constantly maneuvering the changing landscape of his daughter’s mood, Josh Hamilton is lovely and too sweet for our cruel world. In a third act heart-to-heart sequence, his arrested plainspokenness is at once precisely what is needed in the face of his daughter’s (and our own) self-loathing. And maybe there’s some worth in his speech prattling on with a positivity that dares us to hold the gaze of as we instinctively want to look away, even if it goes beyond the film’s oxygen.
Eighth Grade finds the healing in the horror of adolescence, winning its uplift precisely because it promises more personal turmoil to come. But it also carries the certainty that we can withstand because we have already. It’s a gift you wish you could give the younger you.