Bo Burnham’s coming of age drama comedy “Eighth Grade” is an impressive debut that’s managed to tap in to the point in life where we’re transitioning in to a very difficult period of puberty and adolescence. Everyone remembers their time in eighth grade, and like John Hughes, he explores a period of youth that is very much modern, and speaks to today’s teens. Burnham sets a light on the age of self discovery and the time where we’re learning about what we are as people.
Kayla is entering in to a new phase in her life, as she’s viewing the end of eighth grade and anxiously entering in to her first year of high school. Hoping to make one last impression, she begins jumping in to new opportunities, including befriending the popular girls in school, and catching the eyes of her crush once and for all. When we see Kayla she’s at a crossroads in her life trying to figure out how to make her mark in her final year of middle school, while also anxiously trying to build a new persona for herself as she sees the edge of high school gradually approaching. Burnham manages to break in to what’s so stressful and terrifying about being the specific age Elsie is in, and doesn’t pander to his own generation, instead he holds up a mirror to today’s youth.
This allows audiences to connect with the characters on screen, as well as giving the older generation just a glimpse of what today’s kids endure day in and day out. Unfortunately, a lot of what society summarily dismisses is the crucial epicenter of popularity and relevance, as Elsie spends her every waking hour on her phone attempting to keep up with trends and people in her school. When she’s in school, she’s trying to learn how to approach the in crowd, all the while putting up with what’s become the normal routines and rituals. Burnham makes a important statement in every shot about how today’s generation has been so unbelievably and unfairly pushed aside, emphasizing the pressures they endure. No longer is it about trying to find a clique, but it’s about staring at a screen and keeping up with every shred of information posted by classmates.
In one of the most poignant scenes, we also watch as it’s no longer about fire drills, but now it’s about shooting drills. So normal has the idea of school shootings become in America, that while ducking under a desk during a typical drill, Elsie tries to get in good with her school crush, ignoring all protocol. Director Burnham garners a wonderful performance from Elsie Fisher who is stellar as the engaging but flawed Kayla. As Kayla she begins every new stumble in her life with a vlog for her audience, imparting some kind of advice for life. Maybe she’s doing it for them, but deep down we know she’s also doing it for her. Fisher is just top notch, and she conveys a wonderful sense of humanity and heart in a character who is taking every day with as much courage as possible.
Burnham is never afraid to show her warts, either, depicting some scenes of sheer cruelty on her part, and a panic attack she endures at a pool party. Josh Hamilton also deserves immense credit for his performance as Kayla’s patient doting father, who chases after her and means well. He’s also someone plainly trying to catch up with life, and his depiction as a single dad trying to find some connection to his daughter is both riveting and heart wrenching. “Eighth Grade” is fantastic, and should be standard viewing for younger audiences and anyone that appreciates genuine, heartfelt teen cinema.