Written and directed by: Bo Burnham
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is not the movie you’d expect it to be. That’s not to say I went in with particular expectations, informed or otherwise. However, one would think a film by a sometimes crass musical-stand-up-comedian would be a tad more laugh-out-loud funny. Sure it’s about a serious topic: pre-teen/teenage isolation and cruelty , but one still might expect a work more like Mean Girls riddled with hyperbolic dramas and memorable one liners. Instead, Eighth Grade is an exercise in realism. In hindsight, perhaps its not shocking that a stand up comic wrote it. Stands up comics observe the absurdity and awkwardness of reality: all it takes then to make a movie like Eighth Grade is to take those same observations and deliver them with more calm and tenderness.
Eighth Grade introduces itself to the sound of an (apple) Photo Booth camera counting down. We meet protagonist Kayla (Elsie Fisher), eighth grader and self-help vlogger. She first comes across as someone simply seeking attention, who has nothing substantive to stay. The bulk of her videos consist of umms, uhhs and her sign out phrase “Gucci” (I guess I’m too old to get why that’s a cool thing to say.) Kayla’s videos prove thematically important. While they do not necessarily improve in quality, we come to see they are not a generic social activity, but in fact based in a genuine interest of Kayla’s in self-help, perhaps we can even call it psychology. Put simply, the videos are one of the film’s ways of saying that when it comes to middle schoolers, things aren’t always as they outwardly appear. Kayla’s videos add some subtle comic effect to the film as they offer advice on social issues she in fact struggles with. While at first glance this may make the videos feel superficial at worst, and inwardly-focused at best, they come to show Kayla’s true empathy: her genuine desire to make sure others don’t struggle as she did.
Eighth Grade toes the line between having and not having a plot arc. Sure something dramatic happens near the end and then a resolution of sorts is reached, but its series of events are loosely connected. All we really see is the emotional arc of a soon-to-be fourteen-year-old girl. The film’s decision to focus on emotions and not a narrative, however, is again essential to its theme. The premise underlying the movie is that a lot of kids are not “mean,” but act that way to hide their insecurities. We see this directly played out in Kayla’s relationship with her father (Josh Hamilton). Interestingly, Kayla and (to an extent) her father are the only three dimensional characters in the piece. This choice makes sense as it helps viewers enter Kayla’s headspace and share in her discomfort around popular “mean” kids like Kennedy Graves (Catherine Oliviere). We might not feel such discomfort if we simply saw Kennedy as misunderstood and easily reconcilable with Kayla. In other words, Burnham contradicts his message in order to strengthen it: middle schoolers are kinder and deeper than we give them credit for, but in order to see this we also need to feel the intense way in which middle schoolers judge and fear each other.
Another key feature of Eighth Grade is the “Charlie Browning” of its adults. No there’s no one making trumpet sounds, and yes Kayla’s father is a main character, but the absence of adults remains a striking feature in the piece. For example there is a moment when old-fashioned yearbook awards are given: not academic prizes but things like “most popular,” and “best eyes.” We see a teacher announcing these awards. At least in the schoolboard I grew up in, such an idea feels dated, perhaps even cruel. The teacher who gives out these awards in Eighth Grade is faceless, leaving us in the dark about what’s going on. Is her behavior supposed to come across as inappropriate or normal? I don’t think we’re supposed to know. That’s because the less pleasant elements of teen culture have weight in Kayla’s imaginary, and we are not supposed to see adults as having the power to break this illusion. Another manifestation of this dynamic comes after an awkward, cold exchange between Kennedy and Kayla at the former’s birthday party. This exchange is interrupted by some comic banter between Kenendy’s parents, but her father never appears on screen. This is because the father’s appearance could put things in perspective and suggests that, for the most part, all is well in the kids’ world. Such a sentiment would do no justice to Kayla’s perspective.
I suppose you could say there are two ways Burnham distances himself from his film. The first is that it’s not a comedy, and the second is that his protagonist is a girl. There are obvious political reasons for telling the story from a girl’s perspective; the film lays bare that sleeziness and rape culture develop quite early in people’s lives. There’s something striking about this theme coming up in a film called Eighth Grade. The film’s title does not situate it as a political work: but rather as an every(wo)man story of growing up. This adds another eerie layer to its already uncomfortable depiction of a girl’s experience. Recall the fact that the characters in the film, other than Kayla, are largely flat. This means that when its boy characters behave problematically we are not being told that they are individuals with some harmful behavioral tendencies, or even being presented with a critique of toxic masculinity. Instead, the harassing boys Kayla runs into are treated as forces of nature, yet another inescapable horror in her middle school experience.
A final theme of note in Eighth Grade is technology. Kayla, Kennedy and many of their peers are constantly on their phones, a behavior that comes across as anti-social, though in the case of Kayla we are given a more nuanced view. Burnham is ambiguous in his handling of this issue. One confrontation between Kayla and Kennedy sees the latter speaking monosyllabically while glued to her screen. I for one am undecided on the question of whether such a scene would have played out differently in a film of years’ past (as middle schoolers like Kennedy no doubt found other ways to be rude in the past) or whether it truly is a moment about cell phone addiction.
I’m sure there’s more to deconstruct about the social and political content of Eighth Grade, and these qualities are no doubt part of its success. The film’s effectiveness, however, can also be attributed to far simpler things. Burnham’s writing captures the language and awkwardness of eighth graders with emotionally captivating authenticity (Eg when Kennedy messages Kayla on instagram “My Mom told me to invite you to my party so this is me doing that.”) And its not just coldness that Burnham writes well. He knows how to write an uplifting monologue with just enough personalized nuance thrown in that it actually feels beautiful and not like greeting card fluff. Eighth Grade may not be actual eighth graders, but middle schoolers of years past will find plenty to appreciate in this generalist, yet fine tuned story.