Anyone who has ever cringed their way through adolescence can tell you that eighth grade—that in-between age when you’re not a child anymore and not yet a full teenager—is hell. It’s hard to recall any movie that has tapped into that agony as astutely as Bo Burnham’s comedy Eighth Grade. Starring Elsie Fisher as a 13-year-old girl named Kayla, the movie magnifies the fear and loathing of that age so perfectly, thanks to Burnham’s wonderfully crafted script and Fisher’s pitch-perfect performance.
There’s no life-altering drama that takes place in Eighth Grade, but there doesn’t need to be; Burnham perfectly understands that for teenagers, smaller moments are more intensely felt, small aggravations are assaults, and small decisions seemingly have life or death consequences. We meet Kayla when she’s recording a video for her YouTube blog, on which she doles out helpful life advice for fellow youths (the topic for this video is “How to Be Yourself”). Intermittently through the movie, Kayla records other instructional videos—on how to make new friends or putting yourself out there—but the irony is that in real life, Kayla has trouble following through with her words. Even though she commands authority in each vlog, she fails to make any sort of impression on her peers, so much so she gets voted “Most Quiet” for the school yearbook.
Kayla focuses on breaking out of her shell to the popular kids as the school year winds down, often to unsuccessful results. At home, she’s supported and bolstered by her father (played by an endearing Josh Hamilton), but at that age, what can parental encouragement fulfill that Instagram likes and the attention of the cutest boy at school can’t? Watching Hamilton and Fisher go through their back-and-forth arguments (which, essentially, are about nothing except Kayla projecting) is a testament to their fantastic acting skills, and these scenes are as skin-crawlingly uncomfortable as they are hilarious.
Burnham knows a thing or two about crafting a YouTube presence, as he created his own corner of the internet with comedy videos, which propelled him to increasingly larger-scale acting and writing projects. He points his lens here on how social media and the internet can really heighten one’s insecurities (hell, even as an adult that is the case) at an already-vulnerable age. Kayla, who sports bad acne and baby fat, is seen as an other at her middle school, so she’s transfixed by images online of her classmates and their besties posing together and making memories. That’s social media for you: While we’re more connected than ever before, one can feel even more alone. Eighth Grade, however, makes the case for viewers that you’re never alone; there’s always someone out there feeling the same feelings and having the same insecurities.
It’s hard to know whether any other actor playing Kayla could magnetize the audience as well as Fisher does, but frankly, I can’t imagine anyone else playing her. She simply has a magical presence that pulls us in and hypnotizes us, whether she’s stumbling through a conversation, talking on camera for one of her YouTube videos or just gazing into her laptop screen. This is the actress’ first onscreen starring role, after voicing Agnes in the Despicable Me films, and being able to carry a 90-minute film at a young age is a feat that will likely carry her to greater things.
I’ll steer clear of stating that Elsie’s story is a universal one, but viewers will find so many things that will resonate. In one such poignant scene, Kayla, who has been invited to the pool party of a popular classmate (well, more correctly, the classmate’s mother did the inviting), surveys the party from the house before joining in. Feeling self-conscious in her bright-green swimsuit, she’s literally on the outside looking in on the partygoers playing in the water, feeling the full weight of dread and anxiety of being judged or ridiculed for her looks. It’s a little on the nose, sure, but it’s so effectively shot and directed it feels as if it’s directly addressing viewers who have gone through similar feelings, and it, like the rest of the film, gives the warmest cinematic hug. Even if you’re years removed from eighth grade yourself, you’ll still feel compelled to hug this film back.
Eighth Grade was written and directed by Bo Burnham; and stars Elsie Fisher, Emily Robinson and Jake Ryan.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.