Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (91 minutes without the end credits) is a quiet and observant film about the last couple of weeks of eighth grade for a girl named Kayla. It is a realistic look at what that time period feels like for someone going through it. The result is smart, funny and honest. It may be a valuable tool for kids around Kayla’s age to learn they really are not alone (though, parents be warned, the film has been rated R). It is a promising feature writing and directing debut for the 27 year-old Burnham. However, the main reason to see it is the tremendous performance he was able to get from his fifteen year old star, Elsie Fisher.
Fisher is Kayla, a nice, shy girl who just wants some friends. And maybe a cute boyfriend, too. She lives with her caring father, who always seems to be embarrassing her. She wants to fit in, but has difficulty making a connection. There is nothing in her life that would be considered abnormal for someone her age though, of course, that is not how it feels to Kayla.
Fisher is excellent at getting all of this across. She is helped by Burnham, who just watches Kayla and clearly cares for this character he has created. But Fisher’s performance is what makes Kayla feel real. There is no artifice there. At no point does she come off as dramatized. She is an awkward, uncomfortable teenage girl. I know nothing about Elsie Fisher (who has been acting since 2009), except that she embodies her role so well that it is hard for me to imagine there is not at least a little bit of Kayla in her. It is a very impressive and empathetic performance and certainly makes Eighth Grade a rewarding view all by itself.
That being said, Bo Burnham’s writing and direction deserves some of the credit for his film’s success. He definitely has a good grasp on what life is like for a lot of eighth graders. Though a few incidents may seem minor to an adult, Burnham understands that every second with a peer is life and death at that age. He keeps his story simple and warm. There is nothing manufactured about it. The moments of humor are generally not of the laugh out loud variety; they are better described as amusing moments of recognition. He consistently focuses on Kayla and never leans into the comedy. He is light with his style, letting Kayla make her own decisions instead of forcing her into them. This is not a sitcom, but it is much closer to that than it is a harrowing cautionary tale. This is the story of a regular middle schooler, as told by someone who remembers how terrible it is to be a regular middle schooler.
Overall, I really enjoyed Eighth Grade for its protagonist and its lack of contrivance. I was also able to relate to some of Kayla’s struggles. There is a lot of insight in this movie, as well as compassion. Perhaps you will see more of yourself in her, and be even more moved by her story. Or maybe you will not see anything of yourself at all. It is absolutely worth checking out regardless for Burnham’s soft directorial touch and Fisher’s incredibly sympathetic performance.
3¾ out of 5
Elsie Fisher as Kayla
Josh Hamilton as Mark Day
Emily Robinson as Olivia
Catherine Oliviere as Kennedy
Luke Prael as Aiden
Jake Ryan as Gabe
Written and Directed by Bo Burnham