Once upon a time, they called it junior high school, that fraught and fretful gateway into the teenage years. These days, it’s known as middle school.
But even though the name has changed, and the advent of personal technology has altered the landscape even more, the excruciating angst of being 13 is the same for every generation—an experience captured to poignant comic perfection in Eighth Grade. It’s the first feature film from writer-director Bo Burnham, an actor and stand-up comedian best known for directing comedy specials.
What’s most remarkable about the movie is Burnham’s insight into young female psychology, and the eggshell-strewn minefield of parent-child relationships. Working closely with his muse and co-conspirator Elsie Fisher, turning in a galvanizing performance as an eighth-grade girl enduring her last week of middle school, Burnham zeroes in with tender precision on the special awkwardness of this in-between, unavoidable phase of life.
For those of us who have spent our entire adult lives trying to forget our 13-year-old selves (which would be, roughly, everybody alive), this movie brings it all flooding back—every yearning, every perceived slight, every desperately game attempt to at least appear, you know, normal. It’s a return trip most of us would not care to make in real life, but we can view Burnham’s intense replication from a safe distance, with a spectator’s eye—and escape, intact, after only 93 minutes.
Burnham doesn’t take the easy route of making his protagonist some kind of outcast, which would confer on her the status of underdog heroine. Kayla Day (Fisher) is a perfectly ordinary eighth-grader; she has no friends not because the other kids shun her, but because she’s so “quiet” that few of her classmates ever even notice her. She assures herself that people would find her cool and funny if only they took the trouble to get to know her.
Where Kayla does most of her talking is in the daily videos she uploads onto her YouTube channel, where she dispenses advice on random topics like confidence and “getting yourself out there.” (These are mostly pep talks for herself, rather than for any audience of watchers she’s not even sure are tuning in.) She certainly doesn’t spare many words for her father Mark (Josh Hamilton), a patient and loving single dad who’s all thumbs when it comes to trying to coax his touchy tween to take out her earbuds and have a conversation at the dinner table.
Kayla’s last week of middle school is full of explosive little moments. Despite her distress, she shows up when a snobby popular girl’s mom forces her daughter to invite Kayla to a pool party. She’s delirious when she makes a friend, the perky high school senior Olivia (Emily Robinson), assigned to show Kayla around on Senior Shadow Day. She’s confronted with her first clumsy sexual advance in a scene that rings painfully true for every former 13-year-old in the audience.
Burnham never misses a beat of emotional truth throughout his tale, from the way loud metal music hammers in Kayla’s head every time she sees the sloe-eyed lout she has a secret crush on, to her dependence on YouTube to explain the world to her (from makeup tips to the definition of blowjob). Fisher even walks like an eighth-grader—shoulders hunched, chin down.
A late-inning scene when her dad haltingly reveals his own hopes and dreams for his daughter, and the young woman she’s becoming, is wonderfully effective. Finally, Kayla’s understanding of who she is, and her decision to stay true to her emerging self no matter what, wins our hearts.
***1/2 (out of four)
With Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, and Emily Robinson. Written and directed by Bo Burnham. An A24 release. Rated R. 93 minutes.