Written by: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger
Unless lucky enough to fall in the cool kid’s bracket, many can agree middle school did not encapsulate a great time in their lives. It marked the beginning of puberty, which meant everyone from elementary school now has far too many hormones and mostly just needs deodorant. Self-esteem begins to really take a hit, especially for the shy kids. Eighth Grade takes a sensitive and touching look at this time in a young girl’s life in a way making the audience cringe because many have found themselves in the same position.
Now in her last week of eighth grade, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) prepares for her what high school may bring. She runs a YouTube channel where she posts videos helping people overcome shyness while struggling with it herself. After being selected as the shyest in her class superlatives, she makes an effort to push her boundaries.
Eighth Grade comes in with a warm hug for anyone who suffered from being shy at any point in life, but especially in middle school. It presents such a lovable character in Kayla as someone to care for from the very beginning, as the narrative begins with her recording a video for her YouTube channel. Right away it displays the earnestness of this character as she lacks any cynicism and genuinely wants to help others. In these videos, she follows the typical pattern of influencers of presenting shyness and social awkwardness as something she has already overcome where the rest of the film disputes this very notion. This all comes from a good place and solidifies this character as someone we want to protect from all of the characters in the story.
As a definitive Generation Z movie, it shows the social media obsession Kayla has developed by regularly checking it. Constant scrolling makes up so much of her time as it shows her flipping through the different applications. Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube all get utilized as a part of her staple to connect with her classmates. The neverending awkwardness even appears here when she leaves comments that some would find strange on their photos but it all comes from a place of earnestness and yearning to connect with others. Social media serves as the most confident way she feels she can interact with her peers because the moments in-person find her looking at the ground when talking to others and barely being able to speak in varying instances. This level of shyness certainly mirrors my experience in moments growing up and for many others, which shows the genuine storytelling happening with this story. It explains what makes it so endearing and why I love it with all of my heart.
The middle and high schoolers in this film do not speak like they just took Philosophy 101, instead, they speak like actual human beings with all of the nervousness and weird mannerisms young folks genuinely display. This comes down not only to the performances, but also the screenplay by Bo Burnham. Nothing about the story gets portrayed in any sort of glamorous light because it’s not a time where people felt at their most confident, including Kayla. The writing gets right at the core of the issues plaguing young people of this generation in a manner that never feels condescending or negative because these experiences come with their own validity. While a millennial himself, Burnham proves to truly tap into this younger generation, as they grew up with social media being available right from the onset. They received smartphones at an earlier age than any other and it comes through in how they interact both in this virtual space and in-person.
So many moments throughout the film serve to produce either an eye roll or a cringe because many have gone through the same circumstances and scenarios as young Kayla. Some that come to mind include her crush on Aiden (Luke Prael). I knew so many girls who liked scrawny boys that looked just like him. It makes for a great moment where Kayla finds his Instagram feed and sees him flexing his non-existent muscles and genuinely getting turned on by it. Then come the moments where she takes the longest trek of her life from the bathroom of the swimming pool, as she obviously does not feel comfortable in her own skin and it becomes palpable. The nervousness emanates onto the screen and infects the audience because so many have been in that situation and it’s all coming back.
The success of this film definitely deserves credit from the screenplay, but the performance by Elsie Fisher reaches an incredible level as well. She puts in such a naturalistic performance as Kayla where it feels like she’s not acting in those awkward scenes. Fisher absolutely nails all of the mannerisms and stuttered speech caused by nervousness so well, which makes reading the actual screenplay something intriguing to pursue. She helps in establishing this character as someone to care for, as she transports the audience to their most awkward moments, and the genuine nature of this performance certainly heavily contributes to the feeling. She pairs impeccably well with the father character, Mark (Josh Hamilton), as he embodies everything I want to be as a father. Filled with dad jokes but ultimately extremely supportive, he provides nothing but endless love for his daughter throughout in an incredibly touching manner. Josh Hamilton puts in terrific work in this role and delivers such a touching monologue that every struggling teenager should see and hear.
By creating more distressing moments than many horror films and having a loving message throughout, Eighth Grade will forever be a movie I personally connect with and adore. On many occasions, I wanted to push all the characters away and tell Kayla everything will be okay because when in the moment, all of these scenarios feel like the end of the world. The relatability and genuineness of this film remain its strongest components as it grabs you by the heartstrings in an engaging manner. It welcomes Bo Burnham and Elsie Fishers onto the stage as they both display their incredible talent that hopefully continues to blossom.