Feeling Excluded in “Eighth Grade” Really Hits You in the Gut in Bo Burnham’s Wonderful New Film


AUGUST 8, 2018

Tonight (Wednesday 8/8) movie theaters across the country will be playing Bo Burnham’s acclaimed film “Eighth Grade” for the audience whom it was intended to reach — eighth graders who could not have otherwise seen the film, given its R rating for a few F-bombs and a “BJ” reference.  The MPAA rating will be ignored for tonight only, and audiences of all ages will be able to see this wonderful movie.

“Eighth Grade” was written and directed by 27 year-old Bo Burnham, of whom I was not aware but have since learned was one of the first You Tube stars.  It’s difficult to believe that “Eighth Grade” is his first film, because it is written and directed with an assurance that many veteran directors would envy.

The premise is simple: it’s the final week of class at a White Plains middle school, and 13 year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is struggling to make it through intact.  It’s clear from the start that Kayla is painfully awkward — she has few friends and spends most of her time on social media.  She hosts a series of You Tube videos in which she gives teens self-help advice on being true to yourself and standing up proud and tall — traits that she herself does not possess — and winds up with no followers despite her desperate pleas to subscribe.

If all this sounds cringe-inducing, well it is, especially if you, like me, experienced that feeling of being apart from the group as an eighth grader.  The pain that Kayla feels really hits home thanks to a wonderfully controlled performance by Fisher, whose every hesitant step to try to make a social connection hits you in your gut.

Fisher clearly has a supportive director in Burnham, who photographs her lovingly, yet still shows her warts and all.  For example, he makes no effort to hide Kayla’s acne, which is so true and so real for a girl that age that your heart goes out to her, which, of course, is the point.

Kayla’s only real relationship is with her single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton, in a wonderful performance), and in a genius move by Burnham, Mark is every bit as socially awkward as his teenage daughter.  He sees that she’s hurting and wants to reach out to her, but he doesn’t quite know the right thing to say.  The love is obviously there, but he just doesn’t know the proper way to express it.  This is one of the most compelling father/daughter relationships that I’ve seen onscreen in years.

Like Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” “Eighth Grade” is made up of a series of small incidents that might not be overly dramatic in and of themselves but when taken together as a whole, compose a complex portrait of the trials of growing up, a portrait that was as true 50 years ago as it is today.  Yes, back then there wasn’t Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat, media on which Kayla dotes, but the desire to fit in (and the accommodation you need to make when you don’t) remains a significant rite of passage, helping to make those who have to endure it even stronger when they reach adulthood.

Despite his youthful age, Bo Burnham seems to understand that, and “Eighth Grade” is all the stronger for it.  This is one of the best movies of the year.