James Cole Clay // Film Critic
Somehow 27-year-old comedian and all-around internet sensation Bo Burnham was able to tap into the mind of a 13-year-old girl in his directorial debut, EIGHTH GRADE. It takes a grounded approach to the psyche of Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), who is going through her last week of – you guessed it – middle school. Burnham rests the entire film on the shoulders of Fisher, who feels painfully realized from every “um,” “like” and awkward pause. This coming-of-age tale is for the modern age, an artifact those nostalgists in the year 2040 will look back and admire for our iPhones and Instagram pages. Burnham understands the age of the internet, as he essentially was discovered when he went viral a decade ago.
Burham places small slices of emotion and absurdity throughout, much like his work on Youtube and standup, with a tone that some will call “mature” — but his work has always been in-tune with science, philosophy and humanity. However, EIGHTH GRADE looks at these 13 year olds in earnest. We look into the mindset of what makes these kids tick, when popularity is quantified in Instagram likes and e-vites. In all honesty, these middle-school students aren’t that far from their millennial counterparts.
Kayla lives her days being known as the “quiet girl” superlative, a mantle that she seems to be quite proud of at times and burdened by in other moments. We enter her world through her Youtube channel, where she provides motivational posts about how to be confident and conquer your fears, yet she stumbles through them with a stuttering she wishes would disappear. The truth is Kayla isn’t a social media star, but she sure is trying, even if it’s not who she truly is. She ends each video saying “Gucci,” a cool-kid colloquial that’s so clearly forced, but endearing none the less. It’s all a journey of self discovery.
Coming out of Sundance, many journalists, women especially, praised Burnham for entering the mind of a feminine adolescent that feels like a collection of diaries cracked open and turned into a screenplay. Burnham didn’t set out to make a movie about a young woman; he was more interested in figuring out how anxiety and the internet are linked. Although, this isn’t a heavy-handed look that attemps to show “how the internet is changing us;” its more of a musing on the feelings we all feel every day when Facebook, Instagram, or whatever your social media poison may be, is just a collection of greatest hits. We constantly compare ourselves to others, and Burnham’s character of Kayla Day is just as relatable to women and men alike.
But it can’t go unrecognized that this film would have failed miserably without the performance of Elsie Fisher, who had just finished eighth grade upon shooting last May. She runs the gamut of emotions from happy, awkward, angry, to scared. Fisher shares many scenes with her movie dad (Josh Hamilton), who goes toe-to-toe with Fisher’s erratic mood swings. Hamilton gives a rather generous performance, making it easy to find him sweet and understanding, yet completely clueless.
Burham doesn’t shy away from the burgeoning sexuality taking place in the middle school halls. At times, he shines a light on the naturally curious nature of those discovering each other, but shows the dark side and how easy it is to be taken advantage of in these formative years. EIGHTH GRADE comes from the heart. Burnham’s creation of this snapshot in a person’s life is something special. It will be looked at as a film that is quintessentially 2018.
EIGHTH GRADE opens July 13.
Our interview at SXSW: