Bo Burnham, the first YouTube comedian to leverage his online fame into a mainstream career, is 27 years old and a boy. Yet he has somehow written and directed Eighth Grade, a marvelously, horrifically authentic dramedy about an awkward and shy 13-year-old girl trying to navigate the last days of middle school.
Maybe it’s not such a surprise. My own eighth grade was before Burnham was even born, and I wasn’t a girl either, but every bit of this film is recognizable (sometimes smilingly, sometimes painfully). Maybe middle school is the one experience that’s the same for everyone, regardless of time period or gender. Basically, it sucks, and whew, aren’t you glad it’s over?
But it’s not over yet for Kayla (Elsie Fisher), the ordinary, moon-faced single child of a single parent (Josh Hamilton), who’s a heart-meltingly good dad. Kayla’s in the middle of her school’s food chain, neither popular nor unpopular, but she makes affirmational daily YouTube videos, aimed at her peers, that reflect the way she wants to be. She needs to “put herself out there more” to make friends, so she records a video where she speaks encouragingly of having done this, even though she hasn’t yet. It’s endearing and positive in a “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” kind of way.
Kayla isn’t confident outside of those videos. She is, as I said, ordinary: embarrassed by her dad, self-conscious about her body, fond of her phone. She silently pines for the cute boy in her class, Aiden (Luke Prael), and wonders if this “sex” business she’s heard whispers about is the way to his heart. She idolizes Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), the smooth-skinned queen bee, who invites Kayla to her pool party at her mother’s insistence.
If the thought of a middle-school pool party is making you cringe, well, get used to that. Eighth Grade, like the school year it’s named after, is highly cringe-oriented. Burnham’s intent is never, ever to laugh at Kayla or her peers, but to laugh with them, sympathetically, as we remember (from a safe distance) our own youthful humiliations. You laugh and wince at how everything’s the same as when you were there, shake your head at how technology (kids send each other naked pics now, you know) and active-shooter drills have made it even worse.
But the point isn’t to wallow in adolescent misery, fun as that can be. Quite the opposite. The story, a slice of life with no big twists or incidents, builds to an optimistic ending as Kayla comes to realize that the present awfulness is temporary and life will get better. Gabe (Jake Ryan), a doofy kid she meets at the pool party, shows her that not all boys are perverts (but watch out for the ones who are). A high-schooler named Olivia (Emily Robinson) takes Kayla under her wing during an orientation day, changing the younger girl’s life simply by being friendly. Kayla’s dad, slightly befuddled like all dads of daughters, gives her her space while making sure she knows he’s there for her.
Elsie Fisher’s central performance is endearingly funny, and so natural you’re almost afraid she’s a non-actor tricked by Burnham into embarrassing herself on camera. (Fear not; she’s a pro. She’s done some TV work and was the voice of Agnes in Despicable Me and its sequel.) In fact, every performance here has the ring of truth to it, the kids seemingly plucked from a real middle school, their acned skin and pubescent features not hidden as in most movies. Burnham uses music and other cinematic effects to heighten the comedy, but the characters remain down to earth, capturing the oh-so-relatable social intricacies of eighth grade and offering a message of hope to those still in their awkward years.
The burning question: Is Eighth Grade suitable viewing for eighth-graders? I don’t have kids, and even if I did, they wouldn’t be your kids, so I don’t know whether your kids should see it. But I’ll tell you what’s in it. The F-word is used four times, mostly in the context of Kayla trying to be cool. There’s a conversation about “blowjobs,” a term with which Kayla is unfamiliar and subsequently Googles (but we don’t see any nudity or porn). There’s matter-of-fact talk about eighth-graders sending nude pics to one another. But the message to young viewers isn’t that these things are awesome. They’re portrayed as challenges that Kayla must overcome with help from her father, her friends, and her own sense of self-worth. The messages for girls (and boys, though they’re not the focus) are very positive; whether that outweighs the “objectionable” content is up to you.