I saw Eighth Grade exactly twenty-four hours after my own 13-year-old daughter graduated from middle school, and I thus feel confident in stating that it’s the most authentic portrait of budding teenagerdom you’re likely to see in theaters anytime soon.
Writer/director Bo Burnham’s behind-the-camera debut is truly a saga about How They Live Now, a pimples-and-all depiction of adolescent growing pains designed (whether you’re a parent or a kid) to make one both laugh and shudder in recognition at its on-point details as well as at its overarching conception of the teenage female experience circa 2018. So accurate that it often plays like a docudrama, it’s a film that—and I mean this in the best possible way—is the very definition of cringey.
Discomfort defines the day-to-day existence of Kayla (breakout star Elsie Fisher), who with one week to go in her middle school career spends most of her time in her bedroom, making self-help YouTube videos whose messages are awash in “ums” and “likes” and punctuated by her closing catchphrase “Gucci!” Kayla’s topics include being yourself and finding your confidence, although it’s patently obvious that her chosen subjects reflect her own shortcomings. With pesky acne covering her face and a body that’s a little bit fuller than her super-thin popular classmates, Kayla is a quiet outcast whose social clumsiness has left her friendless and, consequently, lonely and insecure.
As with so many teenagers (self-assured or not), Kayla moves through life with her nose in her iPhone, staring at K-Pop music videos, viral Jimmy Fallon comedy sketches, and her peers’, social media feeds, where communication, aspiration and validation all comingle in ways that are all-consuming and more than a bit unhealthy. Eighth Grade presents Kayla’s glowing, scrolling, vibrantly-alive screens as borderline hypnotic. Their seductive surfaces and emoji-decorated messages cast a pervasive spell on Kayla, including at the dinner table with her single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton). They’re at once alluring and unnerving, and Burnham presents them as an integral (if not primary) part of kids’ process of self-definition, even as it makes clear that this digital realm is more of an escape from reality than a healthy tool for managing it.
At school, Kayla finds herself on the margins of the weirdos—the marker-sniffers, the braces-pickers—and the cool kids. Still, she’s compelled to hang out with the latter when the mother of Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) invites Kayla to her daughter’s birthday pool party. That event has the potential to be even more embarrassing than her class voting her “Most Quiet,” and yet Kayla, caught between wanting to fit in and craving the comfort of solitude, attends. In a slow-motion shot which retreats from Kayla to take in this gathering’s outdoor revelry, Burnham dials Anna Meredith’s electronic score up to eleven—a device (which he repeats throughout) that expertly captures the way in which anxiety and awkwardness can feel so monumentally epic to a teenager, and how, even when one gets through it, there’s always another obstacle waiting ahead, as Kayla learns over and over again both at Kennedy’s shindig and afterwards.
That slow-motion-and-cacophonous-music maneuver is also employed when Kayla spies Aiden (Luke Prael), a blank-faced boy she’s crushing on, despite the fact that he likes to stick chewing gum up his nose. During a school-shooting seminar that’s all the more discomforting for being so true to kids’ current educational experiences (thanks, NRA!), Kayla attempts to attract the attention of the disinterested-in-everything Aiden by mentioning a (non-existent) stash of nude photos and her proficiency at blowjobs. Those acceptance-courting lies, as misguided as they are believable, lead to one of Eighth Grade’s many sequences that are humorous for being so embarrassingly spot-on: Kayla taking to the internet to watch blowjob-tutorial videos, and then (having been suitably repulsed by her findings) practicing her technique on a banana, only to be interrupted by her dad.
A later sexual misadventure only further underlines the disconnect between the easiness of online and real-world life. Nonetheless, Eighth Grade refuses to lecture, instead rooting itself in the eerily genuine ups and downs of its protagonist. Those extend to her relationship with her father, which is frayed in large part because of Kayla’s desire to assert her independence as a young woman (free from parental babying), and her low opinion of herself, which makes her believe that her dad, a doofy good guy trying his best to raise Kayla on his own, somehow feels more disappointment than pride in his only child. Theirs is a bond strained by Kayla’s own inner turmoil, and Fisher is nothing short of revelatory in what should be a star-making turn. Capturing the nuances of teenage speech, behavior and emotional chaos, she embodies Kayla as an endearing, multi-faceted everygirl—confused and focused, determined and unsure of herself, and kind and mean in alternating measures.
At every turn, Eighth Grade proves precise when it comes to the minutia of Kayla’s universe—an off-screen character’s recurring habit of yelling out “LeBron James!” during public events is the sort of insufferable thing that today’s parents will recognize all too well. Burnham’s attention to these and other specifics (say, the sight of Jonathan Groff in full regal costume on a Hamilton wall calendar) lend his first feature a striking verisimilitude, and help create a credible 2018 context for what is, at heart, a universal story about figuring out who you are, where you belong, and how you deal with rejection, fear, elation and the many other things that make one’s teen years both exhilarating and terrifying. Bolstering his material’s interpersonal dynamics through shrewd visual compositions and soundtrack cues, Burnham never loses sight of Kayla’s inner dialogue with herself—a conversation that, the writer/director recognizes, continues long after graduation ends.
From Kayla’s unlikely friendship with a high school girl and a male suitor, to her cracked-phone texting and her first encounter with male sleaziness (and the corrosive mind games that come with it), Eighth Grade resounds with truths both big and small. Squirmingly funny and frightening, it’s a quest for hope that, in its blunt confrontation of teenage life, should provide that very quality to all the young girls (and boys) who see it.
In its own way, it’s as real—and as good—as it gets.