July 28, 2018
Whether you survived or thrived in middle school, it was likely a memorable time of your life. The new movie Eighth Grade is a snapshot of that time that is both specific and universal all at once.
In the film, eighth grader Kayla is in the last week of middle school. Kayla is one of those kids who isn’t quite “cool” enough to be popular, but isn’t what you’d call an outcast. She’s funny and creative, she has her own YouTube channel, she cares about her appearance, but her constantly hunched shoulders and shuffling gait reveal her insecurity. High school looms ahead and, in the midst of dealing with school administrators who are trying way too hard to be relevant (“this sex ed talk is going to be lit!”), active shooter drills (we’ll come back to those), a crush on a boy in her grade, and end of the year projects, Kayla feels the pressure to figure out exactly where she’ll fit in to the next phase of her life.
You’ll likely see yourself in one of the characters, but make no mistake; this movie is not timeless. It takes place very specifically in 2018. Writer/director Bo Burnham, making his feature film debut, himself a YouTuber turned stand-up comedian, is known for satirical comedy that makes you squirm in your seat. His comedy is funny, but you’ll wonder if you should feel bad for laughing.
That same sensibility is present throughout Eighth Grade, and never more than during those aforementioned active shooter drills. When Kayla expresses relief that it’s not a real shooting, her crush replies with, “ugh, I wish it was a real shooting.” It’s a throwaway line that doesn’t have much to do with anything, yet it will likely shock adults in the audience. I have a feeling actual middle school students will be much less shocked. The reality of being a middle schooler in 2018 is balancing finding the perfect selfie with knowing school shootings are a real possibility.
There are moments in Eighth Grade that feel clunky and contrived – of course Kayla is pressured to go further with a boy than she wants to, of course she gets a couple of cringe-inducing lectures from her dad – but overall it is tremendously effective at conveying the emotions surrounding a pivotal time in human development (at least American suburban humans).
The smartest decision Burnham made as a director was casting Elsie Fisher as Kayla. Fisher is just 15 years old herself and she effortlessly conveys the roller coaster of that experience. When faced with attending the birthday party of the most popular girl in her grade – a pool party, no less – Kayla overcomes literal crippling anxiety to participate, and I’d argue the bravery Fisher expresses in that scene rivals anything you’ll see in a blockbuster action movie.
Eighth Grade isn’t about much when it comes right down to it. The primary story arc is driven by emotion not action, but isn’t that also sort of how life is? Understanding and conveying that truth is Eighth Grade’s greatest strength, allowing it to be relatable no matter your adolescent experience.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars