Bo Burnham delivers nothing short of a classic in his directorial debut, “Eighth Grade,” which tells the story of thirteen-year-old Kayla Day. If you lived through middle school, your heart will melt for Kayla the moment she starts speaking.
She is smart, insightful, kind, and absolutely riddled with fear and anxiety. She nervously chatters to her YouTube channel viewers but can barely muster the nerve to speak when around her peers. Kayla is being raised by her single dad, who adores her with every fiber of his being, but just can’t figure out how to make her see what he sees in her.
She, like many of us at that age, pushes him away, yearning only for the acceptance of those who she holds on a pedestal, envious of their confidence and social standing. Kayla so beautifully and painfully represents that moment in our lives that we wish we could go back to and tell our thirteen-year-old selves, “None of this matters! It’s all going to be Okay!”
Kayla just doesn’t know how insignificant social standing in middle school is; so in the story we suffer with her as she encounters several setbacks, moments of desperation, and very few social victories. Her father, operating at an impressive level of dorky, watches Kayla suffer in insolent silence, heartbroken in his quest to show her how special she is.
The movie is poignant. Kayla’s worst moments are wholly felt, as are her moments of triumph. To get through “Eighth Grade” without shedding a tear would require a level of emotional fortitude that I do not possess. This movie is not just a superficial cry fest however, but a beautiful tale of the oft forgotten challenge of growing up. Kayla is much more than a character to feel sympathetic toward, she evokes a comforting reminder of the fact that even though we feel that we may be in a hopeless situation, and it can be impossible to see a happy future, things do get better.
Kayla is portrayed by Elsie Fisher in her first lead role. Fisher, who is fifteen at the time of this review, has found a way to connect with audiences that I have not before seen, and her part here should easily put her in the runnings for best actress. She is solidly supported by Josh Hamilton in the role of her father, Mark, and a wonderful cast of young actors, many in their feature debuts.
Burnham, who also wrote the script, began his career as a comedian and musician who gained fame through viral YouTube videos. His success online evolved into deals with Comedy Central, work with Judd Apatow, and many acting roles. At 27, Burnham has created a movie that goes far beyond the simple category of “coming of age,” and should prove a classic.
The one issue I have with the movie is on a practical level. Because of language and one suggestive, upsetting, and possibly triggering scene, “Eighth Grade” currently holds an “R” rating from the MPAA. This scene is the #MeToo moment for the movie, and while nothing salacious transpires, the threat of danger is certainly there. This scene makes the movie inaccessible to the middle school demographic that could possibly cherish it, but it would be hard to imagine sending a group of tweens to go see the movie without specific parental guidance. While I think that part of the storyline is very important, I would love to see a version released without it, so that Kayla’s story will not be limited to the adult population.
Burnham’s film joins an increasingly impressive string of recent films written and directed by relatively unknown, young filmmakers. The trend is heavily championed by indie studio A24, which boasts an impressive 24 Academy Award nominations since its inception in 2012. In addition to “Eighth Grade,” the studio has produced and distributed a number of films this year that are already generating Oscar buzz, including “First Reformed,” “Woman Walks Ahead,” and “Hereditary.” It truly seems to be a great time to be making thoughtful, well-crafted, soulful independent movies like this, and that’s a good thing.