This review originally posted as part of our Sundance 2018 coverage.
Last year, A24 released a coming-of-age directorial effort from a well-known performer produced by Scott Rudin, and that film was Greta Gerwig’s extraordinary Lady Bird. This year, A24 will release another coming-of-age directorial effort from a well-known performer produced by Scott Rudin, and it’s called Eighth Grade. The film marks the directorial debut of comedian Bo Burnham, who writes and directs the story of a young girl during her last days of Eighth Grade as she tries to navigate all the awkwardness of being a middle-schooler with social anxiety. In keeping with its subject matter the film is chock-full of uncomfortable moments (real talk: if awkward situations in movies stress you out, this film might kill you), and while newcomer Elsie Fisher delivers a breakthrough lead performance and the film is often touching and sweet, it lacks that special something that elevates it beyond a fine slice-of-life drama.
13-year-old Kayla Day is a smart, sweet young girl who has her own YouTube channel where she delivers advice on issues like having confidence, speaking up, and making friends. But in her real life, Kayla is incredibly quiet with very few (if any) friends. The videos she makes are barely watched, but they provide an outlet for her to express her inner self and desires, or maybe even an ideal self, in contrast to the seemingly invisible girl she really is at school.
Kayla lives with her single father, played by Josh Hamilton, who is incredibly supportive and proud of his daughter, going so far as to interrupt her phone time at dinner to tell her how cool he thinks she is. As the film progresses, Kayla attempts to put some of her own advice into action, going out of her way to attend a pool party for a cool girl in the same grade—one who can’t be bothered to even look Kayla in the eye, but whose well-meaning mother makes sure to extend Kayla an invite. Kayla also has an intense crush on the super-good-looking cool boy in her grade, who’s also so self-obsessed that he pays Kayla no attention until she brings up the (fake) “private” pictures on her phone.
Indeed, Burnham’s film feels true to life in that it chronicles how the advent of social media and smartphones has drastically changed the experience of growing up. Kayla spends her morning waking up, going through an intense beauty and makeup routine, then getting back in bed to post a “Just woke up like this” selfie. She spends her Friday nights alone in her bedroom, perusing through Instagram to peer into the lives of cooler kids at school. The omnipresence of social media provides the illusion of knowing other people without the actual act of speaking to them to learn more about them. Moreover, the advent of YouTube offers a platform for kids to perform—to present an “ideal self” that in some (many?) ways betrays who they truly are. It’s no coincidence that the film opens with one of Kayla’s videos in which she preaches the importance of being yourself.
The film follows a more experiential storyline than something more traditional. There’s no homecoming dance on the horizon or major plot mechanics to speak of, which is both a positive and a negative for the film. It does give Fisher a chance to shine, and she commands the screen entirely, offering up a variety of different shades of this dimensional character. Kayla is complicated—a walking contradiction, but at heart really just lonely and insecure. Of course that’s how everyone feels in middle school, but Eighth Grade’s focus is entirely on Kayla, and the supporting characters aren’t exactly fleshed out enough to provide other kinds of shadings to the middle school experience. Which is fine, but you wish you could reach into the screen and tell Kayla everyone feels exactly the way she does right now.
What the film somewhat lacks is details. The key to a great coming-of-age story is zeroing in on finite details of the characters’ experience, which can thus provide a more universal viewing experience. Eighth Grade, however, mostly traffics in broad strokes. Kayla is awkward. Kayla tries to make friends. Kayla likes a boy. These scenarios play out pretty true to form, and they’re mostly effective, but it becomes a little tough to make any kind of intense connection.
Burnham opts for a realistic, almost documentary-like style that underlines the stark realities of middle school. This is effective, but it does result in an experience that’s less than cinematic. Burnham does succeed in crafting a memorable lead character and he brings a brilliant lead performance out of Fisher, so credit’s due there. Moreover, in one of the film’s most well-crafted scenes, Kayla deals with sexual advances from an older student. This is a scene that could have gone incredibly wrong, but Burnham captures it in a way that doesn’t shy away from the dark truths of these kinds of situations while also drawing an intense amount of empathy for Kayla at this particular point in time. It’s a tight rope walk, and the film gets surprisingly deep into sexual issues regarding this particular age, but it’s these kinds of scenes that prove that Burnham is definitely a filmmaker to watch.
In some ways, Eighth Grade feels like a rough draft. Its heart is in the right place and Burnham knows what he’s doing, but at times it feels like the film could’ve used a bit of tightening or finessing to really drive home certain points. Nevertheless, thanks to a wonderfully sensitive and bold performance from Fisher and some standout work from Burnham behind the camera, Eighth Grade is ultimately an effective—if not exactly revelatory—watch.