Gaining a staggering 1.3M subscribers and becoming YouTube famous at the age of 16, Bo Burnham is keenly aware of the pressure of facing young people and portray an idealised self-image online. Originally starting his career as a comedian, it wasn’t long before he met with the director and producer Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and dipped his toe into the acting world, starring in MTV’s Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous (2013). With several years of comedy under his belt, and inspired by his own struggle with anxiety, Burnham finally wrote his first feature film, Eighth Grade. Picked up by indie production company A24, it wasn’t long until his directorial debut premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2018.
After the releases of The Edge of Seventeen (2016) and Lady Bird (2017), it seems the trials and tribulations of adolescent girls are being represented honestly on the big screen. Burnham’s coming of age debut Eighth Grade follows this trend. As today’s teenagers are immersed in the rituals of social media, with the omnipresence of smartphones that might as well be surgically attached to their hands, Burnham has created an authentic tale about the transitional period of a modern-day girl influenced by the online world.
Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is an eighth-grade student finishing her final week at middle school in the state of New York. She hosts a YouTube channel called Kayla’s Korner and uploads motivational videos about confidence and self-image that get almost no views. Struggling to make friends at school, she begins to take her own advice and to try and fit in with the popular kids in the classroom. Meanwhile, her single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), struggles to connect with his daughter and break her release on social media sites. After a horrific experience at a pool party hosted by the popular girl at school, Kayla begins her journey of becoming her own person.
Known for providing the voice of Agnes in the Despicable Me franchise, Fisher gives a truly revolutionary performance here. At the age of 14, she’s in every sense of the word a revelation in this role and it’s a shame Fisher wasn’t considered for the ‘Best Actress’ Academy Award. Kayla is a painfully real depiction of millennial adolescence and its Fisher’s endearing performance that makes Eighth Grade such a joy. Fisher pulls off the self-conscious awkwardness of this feminine transitional age and delivers her stumbling, nervous dialogue flawlessly. There’s an authenticity about her performance that’s so convincing it will make anyone believe they’re watching a documentary rather than a sweet coming of age drama.
The other character of importance is Kayla’s single father Mark. The relationship between the two is a constant as she’s annoyed with any kind of interference he has in her life. Stepping straight off the set of popular Netflix series 13 Reason Why (2017-18), Hamilton is irresistible in his role. He embodies the haplessly optimistic parental attitude that drives all teens crazy. Although he may not be prepared to handle his daughters growing pains, he’s understanding. Hamilton is able to walk the fine line of being supportive and attentive, whilst also being the source of embarrassment as she attempts to break into new social circles. Many laughs are created with his constant jokes that you’d expect to hear from your grandparents. However, most of the comedy is due to the pairs effortless chemistry. The heartbreaking climatic speech from him towards the end as they are sat by a campfire instantly brought back the wisdom from Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me By Your Name (2018).
Burnham’s style of direction goes for a realistic approach that creates a documentary feel to the issues underlining the stark realities of US middle schools. His style isn’t a remarkable standard and he doesn’t break boundaries, but he Andrew Wehde’s skills as a cinematographer wisely. Wehde pulls off the indie movie feel through several distinctively impressive moments. Over-the-shoulder sequences as Kayla approaches students at the pool party create a suspenseful atmosphere that would easily fit into a horror movie. Burnham uses these techniques to help remind us how when you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, moments of all sizes can feel terrifying. Jennifer Lilly’s editing is also flawless and does a great job creating a specific montage of Kayla’s phone screen as she scrolls through the internet. It’s not as stylistically impressive as Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching (2018), but with the addition of Enya’s “Sail Away”, it shows Kayla’s disturbing journey down the internet rabbit hole.
It’s outstanding that Burnham has produced such an accurate portrayal of the teen girl experience considering he’s a 27-year-old man. His script feels entirely alive with subtle and realistic dialogue demonstrating sublime empathy towards the challenges and anxiety teens face in 2019. However, its Fisher’s awkwardly improvised performance that makes Eight Grade feel so authentic. There’s so much to relate to in Burnham’s script and he directs it confidently. Humorously and authentically capturing the way teens interact. John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) captured the classroom perfectly during Ben Stein’s boring history lesson. Students daydreamed, fell asleep and blew bubbles with bubblegum through sheer boredom. It created a representation of teenagers in the classroom of its time. Burnham does something similar but with a modern sensibility. Students are caught masturbating during a sex education lesson, checking Instagram while going through a mock-high school shooting, or teachers trying to be cool by ‘dabbing’. Burnham portrays this school environment as a genuine living place.
Searching the terms “teenage girls” and “social media” yields a flood of articles regarding what Instagram and Snapchat have done to ruin the lives of young women. Selfies with strangers are sabotaging relationships. Snapchat filters are making this generation forget what we truly look like. Further, YouTube channels are becoming a full-time occupation that creates unnecessary stress. In a similar vein to Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West (2017), Burnham captures that harsh reality perfectly and produces a truly empathetic representation of teenage girls growing up surrounded by the effects from social media. Burnham’s feature manages to create a humorous and emotional exploration of what young women learn from social media, whilst also showing the consequences of spending too much time scrolling through profiles.
Intentionally or not, one could argue Burnham used the themes of Kayla’s self-help videos “Being Yourself”, “Putting Yourself Out There”, “Being Confident”, and “Growing Up” as an excellent form of social commentary. Teenagers spend hours watching internet celebrities on social media preaching how to act and how to feel, but in reality, these “influencers” don’t know themselves. They’re living the lives they wished they had in photos or video clips. Eighth Grade captures this beautifully with Kayla. Whilst recording her videos she remains positive, confident and feels the need to help others. Showing the world who she wants to be. However, when she walks through the school gates, she’s the complete opposite; reserved and anxious and even awarded the “the quietest girl in school” award.
There are plenty of bittersweet scenes as Kayla develops the urge to explore her sexuality, too. After being invited to a pool party hosted by one of the popular girls, her crush is also invited which leads her to research on YouTube how to perform certain sexual acts. This results in one of the greatest sexual moments with food since that scene in American Pie (1999). However, Kayla also endures an anxiety-inducing moment involving a high school senior weaselling his way trying to convince Kayla to take her shirt off. I was literally holding my breath hoping Kayla would come out of the situation unharmed, both mentally and physically. Burnham handles both the scene and the context perfectly. Not only does Eighth Grade offer advice for teenage girls but it also dips its toe in the predatory behaviour of boys and how they should conduct themselves better. Which makes Eighth Grade an impressive feature is that it’s essential viewing by both teens and parents.
My only minor gripes with Eighth Grade is that the narrative flows as an experiential storyline as opposes to something more traditional. There’s no build up to a Homecoming dance or major plot mechanics which work both positively and negatively. Due to this Burnham’s structure often feels like a series of sketches. Certain subplots are picked up but then immediately dropped. However, it’s only a minor flaw and doesn’t take one from the anxiety you feel for Kayla’s journey. It’s not until her emotional fireside chat with Kayla and her father that you realise that’s the resolution the director was aiming for the character. Burnham also doesn’t break boundaries regarding the love interest storyline. Kayla’s crush Aiden (Luke Prael) is a popular boy in school that doesn’t recognise her existence until she mocking suggests she has revealing pictures on her phone. However, after befriending a dorky Gabe (Jake Ryan), trying to impress her with his underwater handstands, one realises it’s him she has a connection with. He goes above and beyond trying to win her over. Resulting in him cooking her chicken nuggets accompanied by every McDonald’s dipping sauce available. However, the arc can easily be forgiven after their adorable Rick & Morty impressions.
Eighth Grade is a great coming of age movie and, for the most part of its 90-minute runtime, it makes you feel 13 again. It’s emotionally engaging whilst bouncing between some poignant truths, with a series of perfectly placed comedic inserts. Anchored by an often too-real performance by Elsie Fisher, to the point where you’ll find yourself praying for her to make it through. It will leave some laughing and leave some in tears. Burnham’s script often falls into cliche, but his knowledge of the nuances of adolescence and respect for today’s social media generation is thrilling. It all helps make Eighth Grade a tremendous directorial debut.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Bo Burnham.
starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan & Fred Hechinger.