EIGHTH GRADE is brutal.
One’s age, gender, marital status, parent or not, and socially economic upbringing are all just some examples on what might influence our opinions about anything. EIGHTH GRADE is fairly universal as a whole but will easily have varying views depending on a lot of these factors. I am extremely interested in what everyone thinks about this film, which I found to be an excruciatingly honest portrayal of a shy, scared, brave, beautiful young girl finishing her eighth grade year of middle school.
Like most kids, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) isn’t popular. Like all kids, Kayla is insecure and vulnerable. She is almost willing to do anything to gain acceptance and friendship. But she’s also not. There is so much complexity in all of us, it is impossible to unpack the entirety in a ninety-five-minute film. Writer and director Bo Burnham has somehow captured so much with so little. His background as a standup comedian has undoubtedly aided him in his ability to observe because I’m not sure there’s ever been a film so painfully truthful about adolescence.
Of course, EIGHTH GRADE only tells the story of a white suburban girl being raised by her father (Josh Hamilton). But that doesn’t stop the film in finding the emotional beats that all young girls must face to some degree. Kayla desperately wants a friend. She spends her weekends listening to music and playing on her computer. She is kind and self-aware. She makes self-help videos explaining the importance of being brave and confident. She likes to take selfies and portray an image that isn’t entirely accurate but also not quite a lie. She does have a lot to say but no one to talk to. Kayla is definitely not one thing that you can identify her as with simply a class vote of most quiet. The fact that she was voted on at all means she’s noticed. And that’s saying something.
I am a father of two. My oldest is currently a four-year old girl. I freak out daily about the idea of her becoming a teenager. Watching EIGHT GRADE, my empathy was with Kayla’s father. How much do you push back when your being pushed away? My protective nature immediately set in. I worried and cared deeply for thirteen-year-old Kayla. My emotions were a wreck for this poor kid trying to navigate life alone through school. It might seem trivial to talk about the difficulties of life before entering high school, but as one frighteningly disturbing scene suggests, there are influences and pressures that can shape Kayla’s life forever. She should not be put in that position at her age but unfortunately that isn’t the world we live.
Never with the intention to be graphic or vulgar, EIGHTH GRADE wisely uses its R-rating to tell a truthful story of contemporary kids in a contemporary world with cell phones and school shooting drills. Burnham’s directing and screenplay finds the path into this world that is rare to find with such vulnerability on screen. The strong performance from young Elsie Fisher puts the viewer directly in the skin of Kayla, embodying all the emotional struggles without ever once being overly dramatic. She is able to speak a thousand words with her body language and the audience is able to feel it deeply every step of the way.
If you are anything like me, EIGHTH GRADE will make you run the gauntlet of emotions. I laughed, I cried, I was in pain and I was definitely angry at times. There is one scene specifically that I dare not spoil but it is difficult and exhausting to sit through. But it is also the most important scene. Not just in telling Kayla’s story but to tell the story of all young girls who I’m guessing all will unfortunately face at one point or another. Some to a lesser degree and some to a much more devastating degree.
So yes, EIGHTH GRADE is brutally awkward and uncomfortable. However, there is so much love, pain, honesty, and bravery in EIGHTH GRADE that I think it might be the most required film to see this year.