Middle school dramedy ‘Eighth Grade’ is important film for adults, adolescents

James Preston Poole

Middle school is an uncomfortable time, and now we get it to relive it.

A24’s new film “Eighth Grade” aims to accurately recreate the pains of adolescence. The feature film writing/directing debut of comedian Bo Burnham strives to make audiences not only laugh but feel empathy for those struggling through a hellish time in their life, and it succeeds.

“Eighth Grade” is a special movie. Its charm starts with its lead character: Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher). Kayla is in her final week of middle school, making motivational YouTube videos in her spare time. As she tries to put herself out there and make friends, she can’t help but feel weighed down by
her anxiety.

Fisher is a revelation. Whether it be her passive-aggressive interactions with her loving father (Josh Hamilton), internal fear at a pool party or strained attempts at interaction, everything about her performance feels authentic. There’s a recognizable nature to Kayla that’s never quite been seen on screen before, to the point where there are moments where the film could be mistaken for a documentary.

The film refuses to caricaturize or talk down to its preteen characters. Nor is this merely a recreation of the middle school experience. Instead, Burnham focuses on Kayla as a person, and the anxieties she suffers. At every turn, Kayla is confronted with being herself. In the aforementioned pool party, she tries to interact with the girl hosting the party but gets shut down. As she hides in the other room, waiting for her father to pick her up, the audience feels like a fly on the wall for this authentic moment of angst.

The constant use of social media in the film is a fresh addition to the coming-of-age narrative. She constantly scrolls through Instagram and Twitter, looking for validation but finding herself feeling worse than ever. This is a pain many have suffered, though not many have seen reflected. It’s the sheer subtlety of things like Kayla sitting at a lunch table with older students, attempting to get a word in, that’s quite meaningful, because we see Kayla deal with so many realistic issues, it makes her eventually overcoming of them that much more special.

Even in its third act, where Kayla finds herself in an uncomfortable situation with a high school boy (Daniel Zolghadri), the film never loses sight of its purpose of showing that, no matter how it might feel in the moment, things will work out alright if you stay true to yourself. That’s not to say this film is only concerned with exploring a protagonist suffering from anxiety. Burnham injects his signature humor into characterizing the school itself.

Whether it be a principal trying desperately to appeal to the students or a kid loudly putting their rubber bands in, there are laughs abound, even if they do carry with them a significant cringe factor. It’s easy to feel mortified when watching this movie, but that’s a good thing, because that means it’s authentic.

However, the real value in “Eighth Grade” is that so many will feel seen. In an age where suffering from low self-esteem and trying to be someone other than oneself is still an issue, Bo Burnham has made a movie that tells both children and adults that it’s going to be okay, and that holds so much value.

  • “Eighth Grade”
  • Runtime: 94 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R
  • Score: 5/5