‘Eighth Grade’ Captures the Trials and Tribulations of Being Thirteen

Eighth Grade ” brings it all back. Few films can be said to truly capture a generation, this one does. The very feeling of being in middle school envelopes this entire film from beginning to end. All of the anxiety, uncertainty, vicious school tribalism and moments of small, but meaningful bravery are here. This is not so much a plotted story as a narrative fueled by memories. It is also about a generation raised staring at the glow of Instagram posts and YouTube clips. For Bo Burnham, this is an impressive directorial debut, especially for someone primarily known as a comedian. Yet comedians know that life is a bittersweet storm of love and farce.

Thirteen-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is facing a momentous occasion, her final week of middle school.  Eighth grade has not been kind to Kayla, who is an introvert who comes to life recording videos for her YouTube channel, which has few viewers. She gives tips on everything from self-confidence to being “cool.” Of course behind the camera she knows she lacks everything she talks about. Kayla is intelligent, but never quite says the right thing at the right time, and is the kind of girl who be considered “plain” by the “cooler” students. She lives hidden in the music of her headphones, scrolling through Instagram night and day, easily annoyed with her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton). Mark is not a bad parent at all, but like most fathers he tries to get closer to his daughter with corny humor or overdone niceness. Puberty is making things tougher, as always, and Kayla is smitten by a fellow student, Aiden (Luke Prael), who struts like a tough guy but is really a jerk. She has few friends and is rebuffed with subtle venom by the local attention queen, Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere). This is not a world that is kind to the quiet and devoid of flash. When it comes time to tour the high school these middle schoolers will soon transition into, Kayla will make more important, at times painful, discoveries but while discovering qualities about herself she rarely ever noticed.

The special quality of “Eighth Grade” is how seriously it takes its task. Burnham respects the audience enough not to give us yet another cheesy, feel good movie about a youth few people ever experience. There are no preachy lessons in his sharp screenplay, and because of that the film feels more evocative and its actual lessons more piercing. It first works as a keen chronicle of how teenagers are living today, experiencing the crucibles we all endured, but enhanced by a life overtaken by technology. Kayla’s phone becomes an alternate reality, where she can become someone else through her videos and Instagram scrolling. When she is invited to a pool party she is ignored by the other kids, but when it comes time for a group selfie everyone automatically get into formation for a social media pose. Someone warns Kayla that Aiden is a jerk for dumping a girl because she refused to send him naked pictures. When he himself asks Kayla if she gives blowjobs, she goes on YouTube to seek tutorials, only to be shocked at how the process works. But Burnham doesn’t handle this material as a dirty sensationalist, instead he writes and shoots these moments with a tender understanding of the perils of emerging hormones. In one particularly touching moment, Kayla practices kissing on her clenched fist just as dad walks in and she tosses away her phone in terror. There are many small moments like that in this movie that no doubt many audience members will recognize like memories.

“Eighth Grade” has a special power in how it fully evokes the environment of being thirteen. With an immersive electronic score by Anna Meredith, Burnham dumps any pretensions at a rehashed plot, instead he allows Kayla’s life and this final week of middle school to be the key themes. He beautifully captures how for a teen, the smallest moments take on overwhelming dimensions. Kayla is invited to a pool party by Kennedy’s mom (to the scorn of Kennedy), and when she emerges from the bathroom in her bathing suit the editing and music make it feel like the most nerve-wracking moment of her existence. When Aiden emerges from the water he may seem like a clueless punk to older viewers, but through Kayla’s eyes he may well be Ajax in slow motion. There is a painful bite to the way Kayla snaps at her dad, who tries to make small talk at the dinner table while she prefers to listen to her music and text.

All of the teenagers in this film talk, walk, make noise and faces exactly like actual teenagers. Burnham ingeniously captures the awkwardness and airheaded tendencies of a specific age in our lifetimes. But he does not let the adults off so easily. School officials are odd and bumbling, Kayla’s dad is caught spying on her during an outing and in a very moving scene confesses, “I suck.” No one is a villain, just human, sometimes endearingly, sometimes pitifully. There are moments of painful experience too, like when a high schooler (Daniel Zolghadri) drives Kayla home pretending to be friendly, only to reveal his more predatory intentions. It’s one of her first experiences with the piggish ways of many guys. But there are good people too, like Gabe (Jake Ryan), a likeable quirk who invites Kayla for a chicken nuggets meal complete with a large selection of sauces, and Olivia (Emily Robinson), a high schooler who does genuinely like Kayla and invites her to hang out.

With “Eighth Grade” Bo Burnham announces himself as a talented director with a great command of tone and narrative. In its technical aspects this is a visually immersive film, beautifully envisioned. The cinematographer is Andrew Wehde, who seems to have mostly shot documentaries and comedy specials (including Burnham’s). But here he displays the eye of a true artist, filming the world of a thirteen-year-old with a style that makes the everyday seem grand. Music is wisely selected in an imaginative way, for example there is a scene of Kayla scrolling through her phone scored to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” during which the song becomes something new and powerful.

Mention must be made of Elsie Fisher, who plays Kayla with so much life and subtly. Whether speaking or silent, Fisher conjures all of the spontaneity, nervousness and fear of adolescence. She can be both endearing and heartbreaking. Josh Hamilton as Mark is also a standout, never playing a typical movie dad who is either a tyrant or too perfect. He is a regular guy dealing with a daughter who is learning as she grows.

Bo Burnham set out to make an authentic movie about being thirteen and has delivered one of the year’s best films. “Eighth Grade” is an experience that is nostalgic, moving, wise yet also exciting as cinema. It is about this generation as it is growing up now, but for many it will be a powerful trip down memory lane.

Eighth Grade” releases July 13 in select theaters.