For capturing a generation with allegedly no patience or attention span, Eighth Grade has a lot of both. When we’re introduced to our protagonist, Kayla, in her school environment, standup-turned-director Bo Burnham leads us into a concert band rehearsal. The middle schoolers are huffing through a rickety rendition of the national anthem. Every instrument sounds a quarter tone flat or sharp in a well-observed detail about how kids this age just aren’t good at much of anything yet, despite their best efforts.
Then, you realize we’re going to sit through the entire “Star Spangled Banner.” Why? In the final measures of the song, we find Kayla. She’s in the back of the band, pushing two cymbals together like she wants to do right by the beat but also doesn’t want to make a sound. Man, cymbals as symbols. At 13, you’re the world’s loudest, most unwieldy instrument at a time when you’re not sure you want to be detected by anyone.
This balance is carried out perfectly by Elsie Fisher, which also means it’s not easy to watch the 15-year-old actor excel in this starring role. The movie around her is committed to portraying adolescence: very little intellectualizing, no adult words in kid mouths. The audience is reminded instantly, through watching Kayla record one of her self-help YouTube videos, that this stage of life is an open wound. Your vocabulary is small, and your wants are as endless as your capacity to be hurt by them.
The simultaneous agony and affection with which firsttime director Burnham carries this off make you realize how few movies, much less good ones, there are about being 13. (The next question of course is how a 27-year-old comedian is so able, seemingly out of nowhere, to cinematically empathize with a 13-year-old girl). All the reference points I want to make for Eighth Grade are high school movies, but that might as well be a different genre. Kayla’s only profundity lies in her ability to be honest about her emotions. In her largely unseen YouTube videos, she’s constantly hitting the nail on the head of the struggles we never grow out of: how to be yourself by acting a little bit different than yourself. Only she doesn’t have the words to mask that sentiment behind something poetic. She’s just describing the paradoxes at the center of all our social interactions and identities for one or two video hits.
Now, this is giving a lot of attention to the cringeworthy parts of the movie. Kayla’s vulnerability certainly stays with you, but Burnham’s comedic sensibilities can be brash as well. Kids who know nothing about sex talking a big game about sex is a pretty reliable source of comedy. And the female gaze as applied to cretinous 13-year-old boys is a deeply funny thing to reckon with for a viewer of any age or gender.
If not many of Fisher’s costars make an impression, it’s because they’re all just eighth graders doing convincing eight-grade things, like not looking at each other, wielding their phones like shunning weapons. Kayla’s most interesting relationship is with her father, played by Josh Hamilton (Grover from Kicking and Screaming!). The father and daughter don’t share that I-know-you-too-well dynamic that made Ladybird so touching last year. Burnham instead chooses to emphasize the height of the task in which they’re stuck together. If Kayla can’t make friends, what hope does her goofy, well-intentioned single dad have of helping? They are partners in a part of life that’s incredibly hard to understand when you’re living it. At best, they’ll bond over that.
Eighth Grade might be an achievement as both an indie film and a broad comedy, should it ever find that larger audience. In addition to guffaw-worthy moments about Googling blowjob methods and whoever that kid is in the background of multiple scenes just yelling “LeBron James” over and over, it’s mining a vein of collective, near-universal repression. If you’re looking for interesting stories, look there.
-review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer