“Eighth Grade” is the type of film that you see and enjoy for what it is, its an experiential tour through the trials and tribulations of a teenage girl. The plot isn’t exactly the anchoring gate that allows you into this movie’s grasp. Nothing happens in this week-long span of a narrative. It’s not about a young woman confronting anything. Instead, we are given a small glimpse of her life, her daily routines, her hopes and dreams, and more.
The film opens with a low-quality view of her Youtube channel, “Kayla’s Korner,” which is where we see the sheer accuracy and authenticity that writer/director Bo Burnham depicts with assured excellence. The ability to allow for Elsie Fisher to sound like a 13-year old girl, dealing with social anxieties, struggling to find her identity in the midst of the judgemental and treacherous world of middle school. He knows how middle schooler talks, allowing her to stumble upon her words. She tries to sound older, discussing hefty subjects on her channel like "Being yourself" and "Putting Yourself Out There," constantly reverting to the vernacular she’s more acquainted with, struggling to carry her message passed the repetitional use of filler words such as “uh” and “like.”
She doesn’t have a handle on adult communication, struggling to express herself in a way that sounds coherent and identifiable. She’s always getting on to her father in those moments, where she finds herself embarrassed by her sweetheart of a dad (Josh Hamilton). Screaming at him to stop being weird, unsure of exactly what that means, she corrects herself with stumbling cringiness, which is perhaps the best way to describe Bo Burnham’s filmatic observance of an eighth grader’s life, a blissful, cringeworthy, flashback of a story.
He doesn’t accomplish this feat on his own doing though, Elsie Fisher is someone who’s experiencing these moments in reality, as a 13-year-old actress who is amazingly in touch with the life being depicted on screen because she’s experiencing these junctures behind the camera as well. It’s the type of performance where she can be herself, as her character anxiously describes in one of the film’s opening Youtube videos. She’s a character experiencing the struggles of a social media massive generation in real time, which is where Burnham attempts to add an underlier of social currency to his simple tale.
Speaking upon the differences between a generation that grew up with social media usage and another that didn’t gain access to this landscape of social interaction until they were in high school. Burnham explores these things with minimal runtime wasted, like that of a sequence in which Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” performs in the background while Kayla (Elisa Fisher) endlessly scrolls through the unlimited data of Instagram and Twitter. Losing track of both time and the world going on around her, as if she’s keeping herself up all night to find the one secret that will make her feel like herself again.
She uses makeup advice, painting heavy eyeliner on her face and airbrushing her acne away, trying to bury herself behind what her fellow students would call “cool.” A common phrase used throughout this movie, as if she’s trying to be apart of the inside group that somehow found that golden key that no one else can find, that secret access to a sense of confidence and self-embracement that makes them seem “cool,” at least that’s what Kayla (Elsie Fisher) sees.
She also sees the beginning trials of sexuality, where she finds herself hopelessly charmed by a boy in her grade, attempting to gain his approval by bragging about her “blowjob” ability, despite never participating in such an intimate experience. She goes home to learn what that means, searching through youtube videos, discovering a harsh truth that echoes with crude empathetic humor, the kind of joke where you want to look away because of the quivering goosebumps that ride down your spine, but you can’t help but relate to the quirky events occurring on-screen.
This is a genre of comedy that Burnham dominates, both in his stand-up act and as a writer who masterfully uses his voice to tell a unique story about something he, himself, has never experienced. It’s a rare moment where a man discussing the troublesome coming of age stories that women confront is welcomed. He can make it feel unique to his voice, blending social beliefs with that of a teenage perspective that Elsi brings with blissful certainty. He includes darker tones that whisper the trials of womanhood, like that of an older boy playing a game of truth and dare with her, a game that reminds us of her naive youth. How she doesn’t understand what she’s suddenly become involved with, unable to see through the smirks and flirts made by this boy, but instinctively knowing that something is wrong.
These moments are stops and bumps in the film that feel a bit out of the left field due to their sheer ineffectiveness in the story. They don’t exactly carry her to the place where she ends up arriving, there things that could be replaced by something else without us having to witness something so promiscuously jarring. It’s hard to watch those scenes, troublesome reminder of the legitimate dangers of the world girls like Kayla (Elsie Fisher) are growing up around, but the mismatch of a wincingly amusing journey down memory lane and socially conscious reminder feel jumbled. Bo had a few messages to get across. I get that. I just wish they blended with the scenery better.
That scenery is produced with ease though, providing this sleek and naturally captivated cinematography from new-comer Andrew Wehde. The camera's best movements are the intimate perspectives, ones that surround Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in her most personal scenes. Her pacing in the morning, her nervous ticks, and her sheer relatability are captured in those junctures, the moments where you begin to fall in love with Elisa Fisher.
It’s like “Lady Bird” in that way, a story that is far more about meeting and greeting the character than the tale they’re embarked upon, it's a character study in its purest form, one that Burnham does with veteran-like ability. Grounding the film to reality, providing an atmosphere of real middle schoolers, not 16-year-olds pretending to be younger, but 13-year-olds carrying out their lives on camera.
He chooses an age of adolescence that we seemingly forget about throughout cinematic history, high schoolers have been studied with endless diatribes of the hardships of leaving for college, saying goodbye to life-long friends, and confronting adulthood. Middle school isn’t the same battle, you have one foot in the sandbox and another in the realm of adulthood, swelling with hormonal urges, self-discovery, and constant irritability.
Burnham knows this. He realizes that middle school sucks, he understands the inherent emotional engagement of eighth grade. We all have to go through this stage, we all looked dumb, we all had moments that made us seem cringy, and Bo assures us that we weren’t alone in that troublesome stage. Realizing that we made it through, that it didn’t last forever. “Eighth Grade” is an empathetic ride that we’ve all been a part of, one that speaks as loudly to us as it does to the eighth grader we once were.