Film Review: Eighth Grade

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Eighth Grade
Director: Bo Burnham

A24
In theaters: 08.03

Like eighth grade, Bo Burnham’s feature-film debut will have you wincing in secondhand (and firsthand) embarrassment and laughing through heart-pangs. The camera is trained on Kayla (the spectacular Elsie Fisher), a 13-year-old girl who lives in suburbia with her single dad (played so, so sweetly by Josh Hamilton). With earbuds in, Kayla spends all her time entrenched in her phone and laptop screens, tapping through Snapchat selfies, following along to makeup tutorials and scrolling through her crush’s Instagram feed. Each day, she uploads a video to her YouTube channel (“Hey guys! It’s Kayla”), in which she offers advice about various topics, like how to be yourself. (She signs off every video with a “Gucci!”)

Kayla does attempt to take her own advice, gawkily and misguidedly bumbling through her erratic cracks at flirting or friendship—at bravery. But it’s still eighth grade: These are anxious times, and the year has been more or less a disaster. She doesn’t have any friends, and she was voted Most Quiet in her class. So, Kayla keeps her shoulders hunched, eyes to the floor, waiting for someone to discover the “real” her.

As much as Eighth Grade soaks us in the all-encompassing awkwardness and weirdness of being 13, Burnham’s confident direction and writing are keen and ever empathetic. Kayla quells her intense nerves while attending the surly cool-girl Kennedy’s pool party and grimaces, near tears, when Kennedy scoffs at Kayla’s gift. She gets bored by her school drill’s blasé yet somewhat graphic enactment of a school shooting (one of Burnham’s many poignant reminders of 21st-century realities), and seeks advice via questionable Google searches. She spends time with new people (and Eighth Grade has assembled an excellent supporting cast): Kennedy’s perhaps strange yet earnest cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan), the incredibly welcoming high schooler Olivia (Emily Robinson) and Olivia’s friend Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), an older boy with whom Kayla’s encounter starts out as cringeworthy and ends as deeply unnerving.

Throughout, Burnham, along with the revelatory Fisher and Hamilton, offers us things that might have felt out of reach, or even irrelevant, in eighth grade: patience and compassion, a reminder of kindness as goodness, the sense that what we felt and feel are OK and that we’re not alone in it. Hilarious and heartfelt, joyful and generous, Eighth Grade is an unbelievably tender and true snapshot of what it means to grow up. –Kathy Rong Zhou