Movies about the trials and traumas of high school are a genre unto themselves, yet the even more fraught environment of junior high isn’t explored nearly as often. Middle school is where the transition from childhood to young adulthood takes place, with all the doubts and insecurities and missteps that entails. Some people may have positive high school memories, but is there anyone who really looks back at junior high fondly?
Comedian/musician turned remarkably promising first-time feature filmmaker Bo Burnham clearly remembers those days well. What’s impressive is that in Eighth Grade, he evokes and explores that milieu through the experiences of the opposite gender. And what’s more impressive than that is the way he unflinchingly and unsparingly follows a young girl on the outside of middle-school society while avoiding either sentimentalizing her or descending into the callous misanthropy that marred Todd Solondz’s conceptually similar Welcome to the Dollhouse.
His heroine is Kayla (Elsie Fisher), who in her early moments seems pretty together, recording the latest of her weekly YouTube videos in which she unironically says, “The hardest part of being yourself is that it’s not always easy.” Her regular subject is self-confidence, about which she happily dispenses advice even as she herself, we soon discover, could use some serious help in that area. Kayla says she simply chooses not to talk, though as we follow her through the halls of her school—where she’s voted “Most Quiet” by her classmates—it becomes clear she has deeper issues than that. She may be able to cover up her acne with makeup, but she can’t salve the anxieties she suffers as easily.
Fisher, who voiced youngest daughter Agnes in the first two Despicable Me films, is a real discovery as Kayla, and makes her impression in a quieter manner than many breakout child actors. She inhabits Kayla so completely that she never seems to be acting, from her outspoken private moments to the withdrawn demeanor with which she faces the world beyond her bedroom. Her performance doesn’t beg for sympathy, but earns it via an honest and true sensitivity to what Kayla is going through.
That perception is shared by Burnham, who proves to be a born filmmaker with an unerring sense of how to use the camera and editing for maximum but understated impact. A montage of the social media in which Kayla is immersed, set to the tune of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” may sound like an on-the-nose cliché or self-parody, but in the hands of Burnham and his visual team, it’s a marvelous mood-setter. When Kayla reluctantly goes to a pool party to which she has been just as reluctantly invited by cool girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), Burnham conveys an achingly relatable feeling of being the only one at such a get-together who’s not having any fun.
Burnham doesn’t shy away from the pain of Kayla’s crippling anxiety, and the casual cruelties young people inflict upon one another, though he likes Kayla enough to spare her any serious or gratuitous abuse. Eighth Grade knows that at that age, ostracism can be just as traumatic as verbal or physical bullying, and when Kayla decides she’s going to be more outgoing, her awkward attempts to connect with her peers are among the movie’s most cringe-worthy moments. And yet they’re some of the most darkly funny too, as when Kayla takes the staging of a school-shooting drill as an opportunity to talk to Aiden (Luke Prael), on whom she has a hopeless crush.
The tonal control Burnham maintains over the material is most evident when Kayla’s class, which is on the verge of graduating, is taken to the local high school for a taste of what’s to come. Kayla is paired up with Olivia (Emily Robinson), a sweet, giddy senior who promises to open up new social horizons for Kayla—and knowing the movie you’re watching, you can’t help thinking that something’s got to distressingly give. The place this subplot leads is nonetheless unexpected, and also Eighth Grade’s most harrowing scene, even as Burnham plays it for disturbing emotional truth rather than exploitation.
Burnham’s gift is that he can lace Eighth Grade with moments like this while maintaining a sense that things will work out OK for Kayla, reflecting the occasional optimism she allows herself to feel. He also has a real knack for capturing the way modern kids speak, to each other and to adults, particularly evident in Kayla’s exchanges with her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton). Just as she struggles with communication with her peers, Mark hasn’t figured out how to talk to Kayla as a burgeoning grown-up rather than a child. The culmination of their onscreen relationship is profoundly moving, pointing the way to a new understanding between the two, just as Eighth Grade points toward enduring careers for its writer/director and star.