At first glance the idea of a 27-year-old man writing and directing a film about a girl struggling through eighth grade might sound strange, but comedian Bo Burnham perfectly captures that awkward stage of adolescence we all went through in his ambitious feature film debut. Eighth Grade brings the coming-of-age genre to a new generation of kids with its focus on growing up in the age of social media; a topic I have rarely seen addressed in film before now. It will bring out all the emotions in you with a powerful breakthrough performance by lead actress Elsie Fisher in this must-see film of the year.
Kayla Day (Fischer) is trying to find her own voice in a sea of middle school students as she enters her final week of eighth grade. At school she's practically invisible, having been voted as “Most Quiet” by her class, but in her free time she posts motivational videos to YouTube that showcase a more creative and outspoken version of herself that she'd like to be. Through end of the year parties, hang outs with high schoolers, and conversations with her single father Mark (Josh Hamilton), we get a glimpse into the moments that shape her young life.
The coming-of-age genre has always felt like its been stuck within a separate time bubble, shielded from the world around it as little has changed over the years in terms of the themes the films often address; identity, morality, sexuality, etc. Eighth Grade is no different in that regard, but by grounding Kayla’s struggles within today’s tech savvy and social media driven world we’re able to see how it’s changing the way kids grow up, for better and for worse. There’s a whole scene that takes place during an active shooter drill at school, for instance. You can’t get more timely than that.
Elsie Fisher is phenomenal as Kayla as she struggles with balancing her online and offline lives, something I believe we all can all identify with. She stays up late at night taking multiple selfies that look nearly identical as she finds the absolute perfect pose for Instagram. Conversations with her father at the dinner table are kept at a minimum number of words as most of her time is spent looking down at her phone with her earbuds in. The majority of her growing up happens amidst the faint glow of a screen. Fisher brings a realism to the role that makes her shine. You feel her pain when she’s venting into her webcam for one of her YouTube videos. You feel her fear when she’s in the backseat of a car with a much older boy from high school. She wears her emotions on the outside so you always know exactly how she’s feeling in any given scene.
Eighth Grade takes audiences back to what it was like when we were all just turning into teenagers. It's ambitious, beautiful, heartwarming, and expressive. Bo Burnham has crafted a wonderfully grounded story that we can all identify with; whether it’s through Kayla and her struggles with being seen by everyone else or through Mark and his struggles with trying to connect with his daughter. It’s hard to believe that this is his first film because everything falls into place so perfectly. Eighth Grade is a breakthrough film for both Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher, and I couldn’t be more excited to see both of their careers flourish.