Review: 'Eighth Grade' Radiates Affirmation and Authenticity
This film was seen at the 44th Seattle International International Film Festival. The film is now in wide release in Seattle. You can read our interview with director Bo Burnham and lead Elsie Fisher here. This review was originally published for UW Film Club and has since been republished here with the author’s permission.
To no one’s surprise, A24 has done it again. They have put their name on one of the most original, earnest, and memorable films of the year. This is Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s directorial debut. It follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) through her last week of middle school as she endeavors to break out of her “quiet girl” image. As she grows, she shares her advice with her YouTube audience of one or two, a sort of visual diary. Burnham himself began his career in comedy and music on YouTube over ten years ago; since then taking to Vine, to Comedy specials, and now exploring a new chapter. It is apparent he hasn’t forgotten where he came from, with a loving look at humble beginnings. Kayla’s objective is to find and share confidence and self-love. He has found his creative match in Fisher, who is so endearing we don’t even realize how exacting and purposeful she is in her portrayal. Bearing witness to her life is familiar yet anxiety inducing, as she radiates a nervous energy that Burnham and Fisher have said comes naturally to them.
I had the privilege of attending Eighth Grade’s screenings at SIFF, standing with Burnham and Fisher at the back of the theater as we watched the first five minutes to make sure everything was up to his standards. He requested the already bombastic audio be turned up to an overwhelming and immersive degree so that everyone could feel just how Kayla felt. In that moment, it drove home how involved he was with his direction. It is clear throughout the film how effective sound design, production design, editing, and everything else can be with such intentionality.
Burnham also takes his young lead very seriously, and it rings true. The movie isn’t out to make Kayla seem small or silly, rather it convinces us to relate to her and believe her circumstances are important. Her journey has real stakes with the tiniest of victories, like singing karaoke in front of a birthday party and talking to the cutest boy at school. We shrink into our seats as we watch the situations she finds herself in, but she is never the butt of any joke. I’m personally sick of movies that make fun of how kids and teenagers (specifically girls) behave and what they enjoy, teaching internalized misogyny from a young age. None of Kayla’s emotions or reactions are trivialized or written off as ‘cringe’ or immature. The film seriously deals with the idea that people can be affected with anxiety from a young age, perfectly describing the feeling.
Eighth Grade intentionally dates itself as a 2018 film, not a film about nostalgia for a past childhood. Though some experiences like crushes and bothersome parents are almost universally relatable, this is the Gen Z telling of that reality. It lives in the here and now, even politically. It carefully dissects what contemporary middle schoolers are facing, from fixation on social media to school shootings. The film also conceptualizes social media at least as successfully as last year’s Ingrid Goes West. It is authentic to the current online landscape, playing with memes and fads that have come with Gen Z flocking to Instagram and snapchat. Burnham realizes we don’t have to understand what eighth graders talk about because half the time they don’t understand it themselves. He lets these kids be kids in their own language. These kids move at a breakneck pace, and it is impossible to keep up with them, and far more fun to have our sense of humor taken for a ride. The film’s R rating is dismaying, as I am fascinated by the idea of eighth graders’ reactions to seeing themselves in this mirror.
And while the film reaches moments when you cannot help but laugh out loud, it remains in balance with times when there is nothing to do but cry for Kayla. Her relationship with her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) is a true highlight of the film, as they push and pull on each other in a tumultuous period of her life. He is helpless to keep his daughter from being miserable, unsure how even to begin to relate to her. Alongside him, our hearts shatter for Kayla when she is anxious and hurt, because we can do nothing but watch. Again Eight Grade brushes close with reality, as it confronts the expectation that teenage girls are forced to grow up too fast. They are pushed to appeal to adult beauty standards and become sexual entities. They are told to change who and what they are for others; messages reinforced by the media. Fisher herself said she had planned to take a break from acting because of her acne. In any other film this actor, who is well on her way to becoming a young phenom, may have been overlooked in favor of an unrealistic, fantasized idea of what a middle school girl should look like. She is living and breathing proof that authentic casting is far more rewarding than putting a twenty-something in the role.
Overall, Eighth Grade is heartfelt and fun as simply a Bo Burnham film, but Elsie Fisher is what makes it extraordinary. She commands attention and sympathy because we all have been in her place, in some manner or another. Her vulnerability is powerful as she attempts to conquer her fears and not only that, but then have the humanity to turn her experiences into advice for others. And she doesn’t stop even if her videos only get a couple views. She is an icon for everyone who doesn’t want to be the quiet girl anymore, which is immeasurably valuable for a time like middle school when expressing individuality can be utterly terrifying. I am thrilled for Fisher’s future, and for all the teenage girls who would watch this and hopefully learn to love themselves a little bit more. Because being yourself can be really hard.