Who were you in school? The outcast? The popular kid? The jock? The joker? The nerd? A little of both, or something altogether different? It’s odd to think back on your younger years and how they defined you, how the happiest times are just as memorable as the most painful - and add puberty on top to make life just that little bit more uncomfortable. The new Bo Burnham film ‘Eighth Grade’ captures this experience with an insightful honesty, as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl.
Kayla (Golden Globe nominee Elsie Fisher) is a reserved 13-year-old who’s on the verge of leaving the eighth grade - and middle school - forever. She vlogs online (not that she has any real following), is being raised by her awkward dad (Josh Hamilton, Netflix’s ‘13 Reasons Why’, ‘Frances Ha’), and doesn’t really have any connections at school. Kayla recovers a time capsule that she created when she entered middle school, and she begins to question who she is as she becomes an adult.
‘Eighth Grade’ is less a film about a story, and more about emotions. We go on a journey with Kayla, and see some of the things in her life that make it challenging - she’s obsessed with a boy in her class but all he’s interested in is sex, she posts YouTube videos about being confident yet almost has an anxiety attack at a classmate’s pool party, and she struggles with her overbearing (yet largely unloved) father. These moments are bittersweet - sometimes funny, sometimes devastating, sometimes both. Burnham as screenwriter has managed to take a little personal experience and turn it into a story that is both very present and relevant, yet also resonant of many people’s youth.
Burnham in his directorial debut is also a great success - the film itself is very observational, the camera often handheld and therefore personal. It’s all very naturally lit, sometimes no more than Kayla’s face illuminated by her phone screen in her pitch-black bedroom. That helps reenforce the reality of the experience - but this is also skilfully paired with flashes of hyperrealism. You know those moments where time seems to slow around you? We see those moments from Kayla’s point of view, as the world moves in slo mo and music pulses over it. It’s a technique used sparingly but effectively.
Elsie Fisher’s efforts here are spectacular. In a completely understated performance, she is the centre of this film - we are observing everything through her eyes, and feeling everything that she does.
All of this work would have been irrelevant if the central performance didn’t resonate, which is what makes Elsie Fisher’s efforts here so spectacular. In a completely understated performance, she is the centre of this film - we are observing everything through her eyes, and feeling everything that she does. She becomes the audience’s empath for the experience she’s on, allowing us into her world to witness an extremely vulnerable and personal performance.
This is a film about growing up, and the gruelling moments it takes for us to get there. Through confronting issues like the pain of loneliness, the awkwardness of sexuality, safety in U.S. schools, the lie of our online personas and the elusiveness of happiness, ‘Eighth Grade’ manages to present a portrait of the struggles of a young teenager. And not just a young teenager, but almost any young teenager. The story’s relatability, regardless of age or gender, is its most powerful weapon. It also offers a glimmer of hope, reminding our young protagonist that, while this shitstorm doesn’t seem like it will ever end, there is life past 13.