Sundance Review: EIGHTH GRADE - Middle School Sucks

Bo Burnham's feature debut is a delight.

There are loads of classic high school comedies, but a relative paucity of memorable middle school films, and it’s not hard to understand why. A good deal happens hormonally between the ages of twelve and fourteen, and these happenings are difficult to dramatize honestly. Tackling these awkward stirrings in the modern age with the advent of social media and YouTube and other widely available/easily concealable media – I’m at once thankful and furious that I didn’t have a smartphone when I was trying to sneak viewings of Porky’s when I was that age – is particularly perilous given that you have to cast kids in these roles. And it’s especially rough now as we begin our long overdue auditing of toxic male behavior. This is the age range where it starts.

The title of Bo Burnham’s debut feature, Eighth Grade, gave me pause for these reasons and more. Learning that it would depict the experiences of a thirteen-year-old girl in her last week of middle school only deepened this concern. This is obviously an important milieu to examine in unvarnished detail, but was a first-time white male filmmaker… a dude… a stand-up comedian the right guy for the gig?

From the perspective of this forty-four-year-old white male, I can’t imagine a truer result. Powered by a star-making performance from Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade is an anxiety-inducing immersion in the world of a painfully shy girl named Kayla who, like any other kid at that time in their life, yearns to run with the cool crowd and date the most impossibly beautiful boy in school. Sounds like your eighth grade experience, right? Well, factor in the pressure to have a presence on social media, to have a respectable number of likes or views on your posts, and the potential for widespread humiliation should the wrong pic get uploaded.  Adolescence was always a minefield, but the present-day situation feels like the Normandy Invasion.

On one hand, Kayla doesn’t have all that much to lose in terms of social standing. She’s just been voted the quietest person in her class, and her YouTube videos dishing out life advice – replete with “Gucci!” signoff – typically attract between one and zero views. But she’s crushingly unhappy in private. Kayla’s in love from afar with Aiden (voted “Prettiest Eyes”), and, judging from her videos, she’s a closeted extrovert. She’d love to be friends with the most popular girls in her class, but she looks at herself in the mirror and sees acne and a body type that is not optimal by society’s standards. Her very sweet but trying-too-hard father (Josh Hamilton) tries to help by getting Kayla invited to a popular girl’s birthday party, but it’s a horror show; she doesn’t have the snazziest swimsuit, and the only person who will talk to her is Gabe (Jake Ryan), the one person at the party who might be nerdier than her (let’s pause for a moment to appreciate a teen film in which “the geek” is played by a kid named Jake Ryan).

But there’s cause for hope: Aiden acknowledges Kayla’s existence at the party (they briefly discuss the importance of charging one’s phone), and the popular upperclassman she’s paired with on “shadow day” at the local high school inexplicably takes a shine to her. What’s more, this upperclassman, Olivia (Emily Robinson), invites Kayla to hang out at the mall with her equally popular friends. All of a sudden, everything’s coming up Kayla!

Structurally, Eighth Grade isn’t that far off from your garden-variety coming-of-age film. The difference here is that Kayla isn’t anywhere near “of age”. The film doesn’t say for certain, but it feels like her first kiss has yet to happen – which makes the conclusion to her magical mall hang-out with Olivia and company all the more harrowing. Kayla snags a ride home with Olivia’s friend Riley, and winds up being the last person he drops off. This is clearly by design, and it’s possible Kayla realizes this. There’s some gray area there. But there’s nothing ambiguous about what happens next: rather than speed Kayla back to her house, Riley pulls over and joins her in the back seat, where he initiates a game of truth or dare. It doesn’t take long for him to manufacture a reason for his shirt to come off, at which point he tries to coerce Kayla into doing likewise. Burnham has cited Catherine Breillat as one of the major influences on Eighth Grade, and this scene crackles with the charge of unpredictability that makes her films such a rough ride. You get the sense that this could all go horribly sideways because, in real life, these situations go sideways all the time.

It’s important to note that Burnham isn’t making Fat Girl here. This is a comedy. The sequence in question actually elicited nervous laughter at my screening. But while Kayla gets out of this predicament physically unscathed, Burnham and Fisher leave no doubt that the encounter we’ve witnessed will be a formative trauma for her. Of course, everything we’re watching is formative. It’s been thirty years, and I still possess a crystalline recall every triumph and humiliation I experienced as an eighth grader. Parents will tell you these moments aren’t the end of the world, but, in that moment, they absolutely are, and they will resonate with you for the rest of your life – only now there may be permanent video forever at the ready to fill in the most excruciatingly awful details your brain jettisoned for survival’s sake.

I swear I laughed out loud while watching Eighth Grade, but it’s somehow more disquieting the further away from it I get. And I can’t decide what disturbs me more: the future we’ve left for Kayla or the possibility that I might sound like my parents complaining about rap music. God help these kids. Gucci.