It is impossible to understand how a 28-year-old male filmmaker has been able to craft such a heartbreakingly perceptive exploration of the trials and tribulations of a socially isolated 13-year-old girl trying to navigate her way through the final days of middle school. However, with Eighth Grade, actor and stand-up comedian Bo Burnham has done exactly that, delivering a remarkably assured feature debut that successfully captures all of the insecurity, awkwardness and irritability of those early teenage years. Burnham dishes up plenty of commentary on the unique expectations and stresses of being a teenager today; from the pressure to be more than just okay and the expectation to live a performative life under the scrutiny of Snapchat, Instagram and the like. However, he is never preachy and he applies a light touch, finding the perfect balance between humour and heartbreak, the success of which is in large part due to the achingly authentic performance from Elsie Fisher in the lead role.
Kayla lives at home with her dad Mark (Josh Hamilton) and hosts a Youtube series called Kayla’s Korner where she dishes out advice to a non-existent audience of her peers, covering such topics as ‘Being Yourself’ and ‘Putting Yourself Out There’, When we learn what Kayla’s life is really like, the poignancy of these videos is laid bare. She positions herself as an expert trying to help others, even though she can’t bring herself to follow her own advice; plagued by a lack of self-esteem that has confined her to the margins of the numerous social circles that populate her school. Burnham seems to understand that there is nothing quite as terrifying as being a shy eighth grader and the fact that Fisher is of a similar age means she can relate to the experiences of her character and deliver a performance that is much more in touch with what Kayla is going through than somebody merely pretending to be young could ever possibly achieve. In one particularly agonising moment, Kayla, having been invited to a party for the most popular kid in school by a well-meaning mother, stands frozen with fear as she watches the other kids interact in and around the pool, desperately trying to psyche herself into joining them.
When Kayla ‘shadows’ the vibrant and seemingly genuine Olivia (Emily Robinson) during a high school orientation day, a friendship is formed that sees Kayla invited to hang with the older kids at the mall. However, darker moments soon threaten as Kayla finds herself being pressured by one of Olivia’s male friends to reveal more of herself that she is willing, an awkward and unsavoury moment that is undoubtedly the experience of so many girls. Burnham nails how middle school-aged kids talk, particularly the less self-assured; they stumble, they mumble and they try to sound older but can never sustain it for long before retreating inwards or looking to their phone as an exit strategy. For the likes of Kayla, every social scenario comes laden with emotional peril. Through it all, Mark is desperate to connect with his daughter, but finds himself shut out at every turn. At one point, when she asks if having her as a daughter makes him sad, his heartbreak is palpable as he simply cannot fathom how she could possibly think such a thing.
Too often, parents are portrayed at either end of a spectrum; either ridiculously strict or desperate in their attempt to seem cool. Burnham, who also wrote the screenplay, has avoided falling into such a trap and Mark comes across as nothing more, or less, than a father who is desperate for his daughter to find happiness. He is neither overbearing nor ambivalent with regard to Kayla’s struggles to find a place for herself in the world and the relationship between them, like so much of the film, feels very real indeed. Whilst Eighth Grade is full of excruciating moments, the deftness of Burnham’s direction and the heartfelt honesty of the performance from Fisher combine to make this a poignant, sensitive exploration of early adolescence in the social media age.