Bo Burnham’s story of a 13-year-old girl stuck in that weird time in between childhood and adolescence is remarkably compassionate and clear-sighted.
There are teen movies, and then there are movies about teens. That’s a distinction that I just made up. My idea is that teen movies are what film companies think will entertain the financially important teenage segment of the mass audience. And their profits demonstrate that they’re often right. A movie about teens, on the other hand, tries to accurately reflect the experiences of teenagers, and can appeal to adult audiences as well. These kinds of films are pretty rare. Eighth Grade is one of these kinds. It’s written and directed by Bo Burnham, who got his start making comedy videos on YouTube. The videos are clever and satirical and somewhat confrontational in style. But surprisingly, that’s not at all what Eighth Grade is like.
Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, a shy 13-year-old girl who offers advice to other people her age on her own YouTube channel, advice such as “be yourself” and “put yourself out there even though you might be scared.” Almost nobody actually watches her videos except her, and as we see her going through the last week of 8th grade before the summer break, it becomes clear that her advice is meant for herself more than anyone else. At one point early in the film, the mother of a popular girl at school makes her snooty daughter invite Kayla to her birthday party, where she goes through agonies walking out in a bathing suit to a swimming pool where almost no one pays attention to her, and then suffers the indignity of the birthday girl treating the present Kayla has brought with indifference and contempt.
This is just a prominent example—the film is not about the audience cringing as Kayla is embarrassed or humiliated; it’s not played for condescending laughter either. The day-to-day reality depicted here is of anxiety, and trying desperately to be noticed and to belong. This really struck a chord for me. I remember the self-consciousness of that age, and the nervous attempts to somehow fit in to whatever situation one might find oneself. The humor is that of self-recognition, and it’s always tinged with compassion, never cruelty.
Burnham was extremely fortunate in his choice of lead actress—Elsie Fisher is excellent, perfectly natural, with all the tentative gestures and phrasings that typify that weird time, stuck somewhere between childhood and teenage life. This is especially true in the videos Kayla records, which demonstrate her intelligence and her awkwardness in equal measure.
Kayla lives with her single dad, played with great humor and sensitivity by Josh Hamilton, who tries to be as supportive as he can, considering that his daughter pushes him away most of the time, preferring to immerse herself in the online world. And it is Kayla’s relationship with social media that is one of the film’s really brilliant touches. Several sequences show the complete seductiveness, the “down the rabbit hole” quality, of all the posts and links, songs and photos, that swirl around in her consciousness. But Burnham doesn’t just show us the negative aspects of this life lived online. We are shown how the internet is also a place where Kayla can self-present without fear of censure, with a sense of involvement and belonging she doesn’t get in real life.
There’s plenty of humor and irony in Eighth Grade, but you may also be moved to tears. A scene where an older boy tries to pressure Kayla into being sexual is very uncomfortable, and unfortunately very familiar. Ultimately, even with all the anxiety and pain portrayed here, the result is a sense of the worth of this person’s experience, the feeling that a 13-year-old girl’s life journey is just as worthy of attention and respect as any other. Eighth Grade is a little miracle of a film, modest and lovely, yet powerful.