Written and Directed by Bo Burnham
Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Fred Hechlinger
Eighth grade is that rite of passage from child-like actions into the beginnings of responsibility. It is also about coming out of your shell, becoming more of a socializer. What happens when social angst and technology collide?
Bo Burnham explores this facet of eighth grade in his debut film “Eighth Grade”. Burnham started his career as a stand-up comedian, so his natural direction in the story is comedy. Elsie Fisher plays Kayla Day and as the film opens up, we see her in her final week of eighth grade. Kayla is impish; she takes solace in her Instagram account and her music, something Burnham uses throughout the film to carry his themes forward.
To gain a better understanding of Kayla, we need to understand who she is. Burnham sets Kayla up as a self-help guru, creating videos for You Tube with lots of nervous fits of tips and tricks to guide faceless and nameless souls who happen on her videos. Something happens in the prologue that gives us hope that she will find a way through her awkwardness: a genuine desire to help others.
Kayla, who lives on her phone also lives with her dad, a single father. Josh Hamilton plays Mark. It hadn’t occurred to me until I sat down to write this review that Mark is very much like Fred Flintstone: he lives in the modern age, but he can’t connect with his modern daughter. A lot of that has to do with his own social anxieties about trying to get through to her.
Kayla’s awkwardness makes it difficult to connect with others so when she is invited to Kennedy’s (Catherine Oliviere) birthday party, she reluctantly accepts the invite. After an anxiety attack, she joins the party where swoons for the middle school hottie, Aiden (Like Prael), has to explain her gift and unsuccessfully avoids the attention of Kennedy’s cousin, Gabe (Jake Ryan).
The pool party is the beginning of her journey of self-discovery as she takes a leap of faith. Burnham makes a point to be self-reflective here as Kayla is given her time capsule created at the beginning of her sixth grade year: artifacts from three years prior; movie tickets, a program from a Broadway play, a SpongeBob SquarePants figurine and other items, which to the sixth grade Kayla were symbolic enough to be included.
The pivotal moment in her transformation is meeting Olivia (Emily Robinson) when the eighth graders shadow outgoing seniors. It is the first time that Kayla can relate to someone. There is an intended age gap in the relationship and ultimately a friendship because it forces Kayla to realize that no matter the social setting, it is okay to be yourself. Underpinning this realization is an awkward moment with one of Olivia’s friends and Kayla, which sets in motion the one true bonding moment Kayla has with her dad, a poignant moment to be sure.
Throughout all of this, no matter your status, no matter who you are, you can never change yourself for someone else. Technology won’t change that. A light-hearted moment has Kayla thanking Kennedy for the pool party invite through the most non-technological means possible which is bookended by Kayla finding her true voice.
This is Bo Burnham’s “John Hughes moment”. It doesn’t have the same cliquey feel as “The Breakfast Club,” but it certainly reminds us that we were all awkward once, that it is okay to laugh at ourselves and sometimes, we just need to breathe. Some of us are still trying to find it, but Burnham’s message here is that the journey never ends; make the best of what life has to offer.
Rating 3.75 out of 4