Written by Andrew Busch // Edited by Drew Beyer & Joe Ahart// Images courtesy of A24
Bo Burnam’s directorial debut, Eighth Grade, is an update of the standard coming of age narrative, while still reminding viewers of the uncomfortable growing pains that accompanied life in middle school. The film tells the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she navigates the final week of eighth grade, and as high school quickly approaches. This is a story of raw emotions, isolation, and worst of all, embarrassment. Unsurprisingly, Burnam’s first film is both as tongue-and-cheek and as awkward as his stand-up routines, but it also contains some remarkably powerful moments.
Before you arrive at any misconceptions about this film or its director, this movie is not strictly a comedy that pokes fun at grossly over-privileged kids, embarrassingly out of touch middle school teachers, and oblivious parents. Instead, Eighth Grade’s comedic elements are balanced throughout the film by effortless switches in tone where the emotional moments that accompany growing up are brought to life on screen.
One of the best things about this film is this balancing act that it performs between life’s horribly humorous and its brutally serious moments. For example, Josh Hamilton brings some of my favorite moments to this film as his portrayal of Kayla’s dad is goofy and well-intentioned, yet slightly clueless. This setup allows for some wonderfully comedic interactions between these characters, but the film also takes the time to explore the depth of their relationship as Kayla gradually opens up to her dad over the course of the film and they start to have real conversations. In fact, during the scene where Kayla and her dad sit together in their backyard, I found myself becoming choked up during their brief but meaningful exchange. In these moments, Eighth Grade displays its greatest strength. The film is successfully able to make the horrors of growing up into a comedy without losing sight of the fact that small moments can have a profound emotional impact.
This film also succeeds in presenting characters on screen who express and articulate themselves in ways that feel authentic for their age. Bo Burnam reveals in an interview with IndieWire how this authenticity was central to his writing as he explains, “Characters this age (motioning toward Elsie Fisher) often, for me, are imbued with a sort of articulation that is suspiciously close to a screenwriter’s ability to articulate themselves… [To] me the experience of being a kid, not just being a kid, but being a person… [is] how short the words come up to expressing the ideas you want to have.” (IndieWire)
Kayla’s YouTube videos are a perfect example of how she grapples with expressing her own ideas and experiences. She often attempts to give her internet audience a meaningful message about what she has learned from her everyday experiences. However, what takes place in most of these videos pales in comparison to her actual experiences that the viewer encounters in previous scenes. This challenge with expression not only causes her to feel extremely realistic on screen, but it also becomes an interesting point of comparison between her online persona and her actual emotional breakthroughs. For instance, in one of her YouTube posts Kayla talks about the importance of “putting yourself out there”. She fumbles with her words, uses multiple cliches and delivers her message in a way that had me cringing from second hand embarrassment. But the scene at the pool party where Kayla follows her own advice and sings karaoke in front of complete strangers is both a shocking display of bravery and confidence. Moreover, these blog posts are moments that add depth and authenticity to Kayla’s character as they display her continued and failed attempts to vocalize the experiences that come with growing up.
On a separate note, one issue I had with this movie is that the plot does not offer a clear conflict other than the fact that it is Kayla’s last week of eighth grade. I am all for shaking up the typical three-act structure, but this film feels like it is simply placing its main character into situations instead of picking a specific story or narrative direction. As result, Eighth Grade feels like a series of loosely connected vignettes or sketches designed to deliver an immediate emotional response before switching to the next scene. This structure not only disrupts cohesiveness in the plot, but also lessens the impact of the final scenes. Instead of reaching a final thought provoking moment or emotional zenith, I felt like this film left me hanging as if an SNL episode ended on its last skit without the official sign off.
Another slightly puzzling decision that this film makes is its treatment of social media. Initially, I was surprised how well Eighth Grade used social media as a frame to convey Kayla’s own isolation as well as the discomfort she feels in her own skin. She scrolls through her feeds and listens to music while at the dinner table with her dad. She posts YouTube videos that no one watches. She takes photos with snapchat filters that distort her appearance into a caricature of ideal beauty. But each of these moments that initially felt like a slow build toward a larger critique quietly lose steam and fade into the background as the plot keeps moving. I could not help but wonder if this was an intentional choice or a case of the film trying to present too many messages to viewers. Regardless, this felt like a bit of a missed opportunity for a film that aptly addresses something as complicated as the “me too” movement. To clarify, I was not expecting a heavy-handed critique of social media and I am very glad that this movie strays from that path. But, I found myself a bit shocked by the way that Kayla does not even experience a minor change in attitude or frame of mind toward something the film presents as clearly toxic.
Don’t get me wrong, I still strongly recommend this movie even though I experienced a couple of issues with the film’s narrative structure and some frustration at the disappearing act of a critique that felt central to the narrative. The film’s fantastic main character, and the delicate balance it establishes between moments of comedy and seriousness ultimately make Eighth Grade a triumph that successfully captures a snapshot of adolescence in the modern age. And while snapchat filters and vlogging may feel far removed from your own coming-of-age story, this movie presents the experience of big changes in a way that is almost universally accessible.