Part of me was fairly nervous about stepping into Eighth Grade because given the sort of comedy that Bo Burnham is known for, I was already set for it to become something incredibly uncomfortable. But beyond that set expectation already having been placed in mind, what I certainly did not expect out of Bo Burnham’s own directorial debut was that he would have created something that was nearly half as heartfelt as Eighth Grade was for as painful as the memories of having gone through elementary school have been for me. Perhaps it might have already been that I only remember the worst moments as they start coming back to me continuously, which was everything that made me so uncomfortable about the very idea of watching Eighth Grade – but in seeing Bo Burnham’s own portrait of a move from one phase of life to another, it still feels every bit as real as it should. Maybe it can be too much for some, but remembering what it was like going from elementary to high school, I just remember everything being too much to take in at the time for myself.
Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla Day, a 13-year-old in her final week of eighth grade. In the opening, we see her creating motivational videos to be posted over on YouTube, but the moment we see her life at school, we see a very different side of her own reality. She’s awkward around her peers, and finds it difficult to make friends, often relying on social media in order to build connections with others – and she has also been voted as the “most quiet” of her own by her classmates. From this alone, I was already reminded of what it had been like for me, the loner during my own elementary school years who struggled to make friends in the many years I had spent there, often sheltering within my own comfort zone – feeling unsure about what sort of person I am. Kayla’s own story is one that already explores what such an overwhelming amount of pressure can leave upon oneself as they move from one phase of life to another, especially if you never feel like you’ve ever really prepared yourself for the moment.
It’s astounding to me that someone like Bo Burnham could have taken an idea much like this and make it something so heartfelt too, because a film that builds itself around the memories of eighth grade is one that is certain to be extremely uncomfortable – and even he knows that. Many moments of Eighth Grade, especially where the awkward humour lies, border on becoming outright uncomfortable – and to a point he pushes that limit of what we feel we can tolerate, but you still feel sympathy for Kayla because Bo Burnham builds the whole film around what she experiences and how this helps her get ready for a new phase of life. Sometimes these memories can be too painful, because we know that the awkwardness can still be felt in Elsie Fisher’s performance too (and she’s revelatory), but Burnham knows that’s real life as it is. The confidence in his direction already shines from the first moment onward, for he looks back upon these life-defining moments the way we’ve always acknowledged them to be; but he never takes a greater leap to criticize another generation’s habits – he just sees them as they are.
Capturing the very environment of middle school is something that Bo Burnham also does with such ease, especially within the digital age – but sometimes I feel that’s where the cringe comedy that the film is full of can become too painful to take in. It’s depressing, sometimes we want to laugh back at those memories, but this was where my worries came forth given as Burnham’s own comedy style has often built itself on what we always found most uncomfortable. Sometimes it never works, even outright alienates from the environment too – but in its best moments you also have scenes with Kayla interacting with her father that build themselves up to become some of the more heartfelt sequences in the film. Josh Hamilton’s character still rings of that “dorky dad” stereotype, but there’s also another depth to his performance that pushes it forward from being simply that thanks to how Bo builds the relationship between him and his socially awkward daughter.
For some, I would imagine that Eighth Grade would feel relatable because you still cling on to how painful these memories have been for you. As I sat there, I even found myself physically uncomfortable watching these come back to me, and even my years of high school have not changed since because I still remained that antisocial introvert whose only methods of communication with others had thrived upon social media, but I also felt strengthened as they came back to me. Strengthened in the sense that I wanted to break away from being a person who is so disconnected with even people I consider my friends, maybe even letting those awkward moments help me all the more. Perhaps that pain might just have been the kick that I needed, and for others I have a feeling it would do the same.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via A24.
Directed by Bo Burnham
Screenplay by Bo Burnham
Produced by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Lila Yacoub, Christopher Storer
Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 94 minutes