The irony that I usually write about horror films or coming-of-age stories for this site has not been lost upon me. In that respect, it feels like Eighth Grade is the perfect intersection of the two genres, as it surprisingly captures the very accurate, cringeworthy horror that going through eighth grade is actually like for most normal people. Film critic Tim Brayton cheekily called the film “the ultimate experience in grueling terror,” but he’s really not too far from the truth. Bo Burnham’s debut film is definitely funny, but you might just find yourself flinching in abject embarrassment more than you find yourself laughing.
You shouldn’t trust somebody who says they enjoyed middle school, especially eighth grade. That’s the point in life when teenagers begin to realize their own insecurities and shortcomings in a major way, and make the decision to either internalize those thoughts or to mask them with overcompensations. There is very little that’s enjoyable about that transitional phase, caught awkwardly between adolescence and adulthood. The fact that there is an institution, school, where that horrible feeling basically festers only makes it feel like it’s that much more inescapable. And to be fair, when you’re only thirteen, you’re probably more concerned about your social status rather than trying to figure out how you could mature. It’s not wrongheaded thinking, it simply highlights why that period is so confusing. Bo Burnham’s film embodies that feeling of being in transit, trapped in a place where hope seems forsaken.
The plot is more or less observational rather than defined by any sense of narrative structure. There’s nothing wrong with that. Burnham is capturing but a moment in the life of an adolescent, on the cusp of entering high school and ending what was a disastrous three year stint in middle school. For Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), the end of eighth grade feels like the end of the world, and she’s got nothing to really show for the life she lived before that. She’s horribly quiet, the product of some deep-seated anxiety, and attempts to “branch out” by making YouTube videos where she distills advice that she hasn’t even followed herself. Then there’s her relationship with her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton), where Kayla lives this fear that she’s an embarrassment to her single parent, and that manifests itself with typical teenage angst. Sure, high school is just around the corner, but where’s the hope that it’ll be any better for Kayla?
As he’s admitted in several interviews, Bo Burnham is obviously not a teenage girl. So it’s all the more impressive how his film accurately captures Kayla’s experience and makes it feel entirely authentic. That’s largely due to Elsie Fisher and her winning performance. Together, Burnham and Fisher craft what might be the first film to genuinely capture aspects of teenage life. There’s a way that Kayla speaks, not with the weird snap and crackle found in Joss Whedon-like dialogue most writers bestow upon teenage characters, but with this kind of unsure, inarticulate way that feels totally in line with the idea that most adolescents still don’t know how to properly vocalize what they really want to say.
Most would believe this is where Burnham would introduce modern technology, the way teenagers utilize Snapchat over genuine communication and so on, but he posits rather the opposite: that while the technology and social norms inherent to each generation change, the genuine struggles of adolescence never really go away. Part of that comes from the inability to communicate, part of it stems from the very real social anxiety Kayla struggles with, and a part of that struggle definitely comes from an insecurity informed by self-imposed inadequacy. So while the characters of Eighth Grade freely text away on their phones and even have the devices attached like another appendage, this is not necessarily a film that explores the impact they have on youth.
That’s fine, since Burnham’s film is really more taken with this sense of mortification that is prevalent during this passage of life. It manifests in Kayla’s anxiety. A particularly memorable sequence sees Kayla unwillingly dropped off at a pool party, where she paces around in a bathroom having a mild panic attack before putting on her bathing suit and staring outside the wide windows at the chaos that is a middle school pool party. Burnham utilizes a deeply discomforting synthetic score to echo the oppressive feeling that Kayla is enduring and it sets us on edge as well. This anxiety is unfortunately at odds with what Kayla really wants, and that’s friends and a well-established social life. It’s what leads her into uncomfortable situations, including a disgusting game of “truth or dare” initiated by a high school boy who claims to have only good intentions.
Perhaps the heart of the story comes from the father-daughter relationship. Fisher and Hamilton have an incredible chemistry, capably mimicking the real ways that a thirteen year-old daughter would interact with her dad. This leads to several humorous scenes, one of which, involving a banana, might just be the funniest scene from any film this year. But that familiar chemistry also allows Fisher and Hamilton’s characters to be raw and real with one another in a way that’s both deeply moving and very comforting. One of the biggest developments of the film is when Kayla wonders if her dad is sad having her as a daughter. Having just looked through a time capsule her sixth grade self left behind, Kayla realizes that all the hopes and dreams she had back when she was eleven have gone entirely unrealized. Eighth grade is ending and what does she have to show for it? But Mark’s speech to his daughter, explaining how he was never worried about her because she’s always figured things out for herself, proves that while middle school may have been terrible for Kayla, that doesn’t mean the rest of her life will be the same.
The film’s lack of narrative is intentional in the end. There are no sweeping character arcs, no comeuppances for the horrible people that Kayla deals with, or even a sense of nostalgia for this stage of life. Kayla never really gets her “moment” of victory, like a teenager would in any other film in this genre. Instead, Burnham posits that adolescence is just another piece of adulthood by revealing this truth, that sometimes in life there is no comeuppance and no victory. That’s a tough lesson to learn, and learning it during middle school might be the worst place to learn it. But that’s what gives Kayla hope — knowing that eighth grade is just one piece of the ultimate puzzle that is life. It doesn’t have to be anything more than that. It won’t define the rest of her life.